Gavel Grab

JAS Featured in Fair-Courts Coverage, Including NY Times

As judicial elections — and in many cases, related spending — heat up around the country, how can fair and impartial courts be protected? From the New York Times to smaller news outlets, reporters exploring this issue cited Justice at Stake in articles over the past days.

JAS-Logo“Judicial campaign cash is burning a hole in the Constitution,” Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, told the Times. “You cannot pour millions of dollars into our courtrooms without having an effect.” The newspaper’s article by Adam Liptak relied on data provided by JAS that the last three election cycles have included $152 million spent on judicial races.

More sanguine about judicial elections and spending was lawyer James Bopp Jr., attorney and architect of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case, who told the newspaper, “There is no perfect system.” Bopp added,“The balance is between the need for judicial independence to faithfully follow the law and to be held accountable if they do not follow their function and become activist.”

The Times focused on a request before the Supreme Court to take up a case from Florida, asking whether judicial candidates may personally solicit campaign donations. The issue has divided federal appeals courts that ruled upon it. Thirty states where judges are elected ban this kind of personal Read more

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Will Tennessee Continue to Appoint Judges?


On November 4th, Tennesseans will have the opportunity to vote on Amendment 2, which would allow the governor to continue to appoint appellate court judges but would also include a confirmation process by the Legislature. Voters would still participate through retention elections following the appointments. Amendment 2 would integrate the process into the state Constitution rather than state statute as it is presently.

Groups have organized on both sides of the amendment. The Vote Yes on 2 campaign had raised more than $400,000 by July and spent about $50,000, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. The Vote No on 2 campaign was organized shortly before the July reporting deadline and had not raised any funds by that time. A spokesman said that the fundraising has no hope of reaching that of the Vote Yes on 2 campaign.

Critics of Amendment 2 cite the recent decision to replace Democratic Attorney General Bob Cooper with Republican Herbert Slatery as an example of partisanship under the current system, reported another Knoxville News Sentinel article. However, proponents of the amendment have cited the unanimity of the Supreme Court on Slatery’s selection to be an example of bipartisanship. Amendment 2 is supported by all appellate and Supreme Court justices. “It’s the best of both worlds,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Holly Kirby, “a balancing of accountability and independence.”

For further background, check out Gavel Grab.

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Important Judicial Appointment Measure is Widely Overlooked

A proposed constitutional amendment about naming certain Florida judges will be one of three to come before state voters in November, and it “could have the most impact on state policy” but is widely overlooked.

A WFSU report offered that take on Amendment 3, which  would allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments of judges to fill vacancies that occur on inauguration day. Some critics say it would allow Florida’s next governor to pack the state Supreme Court by filling three vacancies that are expected to take effect on inauguration day in 2019. Read more

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Charges Recommended Over Judicial Evaluation Commission Makeup

A grand jury has recommended charges against two high-ranking political officials in Tennessee on grounds they ignored state law regarding the composition of a state board that was appointed to evaluate judges, and that no longer exists.

nashville-davidson-countyThe Davidson County grand jury recommended charges against House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in connection with the composition of what was the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, according to The Tennessean. Its article said the grand jury stopped short of indicting the pair, although it had the authority to do so.

In January, a Davidson County Circuit judge found the makeup of the panel, which was in existence at the time, to be unconstitutional because it did not adequately reflect Tennessee’s population. The commission then was made up of seven white men, one white woman and one black woman (see Gavel Grab). At that time, about 52 percent of the state’s population were men and about 48 percent women. Read more

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • After a major outcry about a different Montana judge’s earlier handling of the case (see Gavel Grab), Judge Randal Spaulding on Friday sentenced a former teacher convicted of raping a 14-year-old to 10 years in prison, according to USA Today.
  • An editorial in The Connecticut Day about federal judicial nominations and a U.S. Senate rules change was entitled, “Minority party abuse forces majority’s hand.”
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Appeals Court to Review Arizona Ethics Rules Case

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hold a rehearing on a case involving challenges to several rules from the Arizona Code of Judicial Ethics. Justice at Stake was among groups that requested the rehearing in Wolfson v. Concannon.

According to a Courthouse News Service article, “Arizona’s refusal to let unelected judicial candidates solicit campaign contributions will face en banc review, the 9th Circuit said Friday.” Earlier, a Ninth Circuit panel had ruled that judicial candidates who are not judges may personally solicit campaign contributions and may participate in other political campaigns and endorse or oppose other candidates publicly. The ruling did not apply to judicial candidates who are sitting judges (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Ex-Justice Joan Orie Melvin has asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where she once served, to hear an appeal of her public corruption convictions (see Gavel Grab) and to excuse her from writing letters of apology, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
  • A group supporting marriage for same-sex couples is sponsoring advertising to air soon that targets the U.S. Supreme Court’s justices, Politico reported. 
  • Radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested that if a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, President Obama might choose to fill it with Eric Holder, the attorney general who announced on Thursday he will step down, according to Politico.
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JAS Says Judicial Elections Reap ‘Bitter Harvest’ in Wisconsin

JAS-LogoA controversy swirling around several Wisconsin Supreme Court justices is the “bitter harvest” of a big-spending system of judicial elections, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg warned in a statement on Friday.

There is debate in Wisconsin over state Supreme Court justices should hear a case involving a top spender on behalf of several of their campaigns (see Gavel Grab for background), and it illustrates the need for judicial selection reform, Brandenburg said.

“State Supreme Court justices should not have to find themselves in this position.  This is the bitter harvest of a system where wealthy interest groups are spending millions to capture the courts,” Brandenburg said.  “The controversy over whether Wisconsin’s justices can hear a case involving the Club for Growth, which has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of the campaigns of four current justices, goes to the heart of the current problems plaguing judicial elections. It’s time for states that use these systems to take a serious look at reforms that will minimize the influence of money and politics in judicial selection.” Read more

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Wisconsin Justices Face Questions About Conflict of Interest

Gavel_and_moneyCampaign spending by some groups targeted in a Wisconsin campaign finance investigation is now sparking questions as to whether four state Supreme Court justices ought to recuse from weighing whether state prosecutors can legally renew their probe.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the following:

“Among the groups mentioned in the investigation are three that have spent heavily in court races to elect four of the court’s seven justices. The Wisconsin Club for Growth is estimated to have spent $400,000 for Annette Ziegler in 2007; $507,000 for Michael Gableman in 2008; $520,000 for David Prosser in 2011; and $350,000 for Patience Roggensack in 2013.”

Another group, Citizens for a Strong America, was funded by the Wisconsin Club for Growth and spent about $985,000 in support of Justice Prosser; Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, funded in part by the Club for Growth, “spent an estimated $2.2 million for Ziegler; $1.8 million for Gableman; $1.1 million for Prosser; and $500,000 for Roggensack,” the newspaper said. Read more

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JAS, Partners: TV Ad War Ahead in MI Supreme Court Races?

Will Michigan see another high-spending TV ad war unfold in its Supreme Court races this fall?

Michigan_quarter,_reverse_side,_2004It could easily happen,  as candidates for three seats have already booked nearly $690,000 worth of airtime in TV ad contracts, according to an analysis of publicly available Federal Communications Commission (FCC) files by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice. Over $433,000 worth of television ads were booked by one Democratic challenger, Richard Bernstein.

“History may be about to repeat itself in Michigan, which had the most expensive state Supreme Court race in the country in 2012,” said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg in a statement on Friday.  “For more than a decade, Michigan judges have been pressured to raise growing amounts of money from parties who may appear before them in court.”

“Judicial candidates in Michigan seem to be stockpiling airtime for yet another campaign ad war this cycle,” added Alicia Bannon, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. “Arms race spending has no place in a supreme court election. Judges should spend their time deciding cases, not worrying about fundraising.” Read more

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