Gavel Grab

New Trends in Judicial Elections Pose Threats, JAS Tells USA Today

corrupt justiceNew trends in increasingly politicized state judicial elections pose real dangers for people who seek impartial justice from elected judges, USA Today quotes Justice at Stake as saying.

“The big fear is that judges will start to change their decisions because of political pressure,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told USA Today. “If money affects a decision in court, you just violated the Constitution.” Surveying judicial elections in numerous states, the newspaper identified these new trends:

  • “In some contests, spending by outside groups — from trial lawyers on the left to conservative groups on the right — is dwarfing the money raised by the candidates.” (See the latest JAS and Brennan Center for Justice analysis here.)
  • “A new study suggests that ‘soft on crime’ attacks leveled against judges in recent years has skewed their jurisprudence, making them less likely to side with criminal defendants.” (See Gavel Grab to learn about the study.)
  • “The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to decide whether laws that ban would-be judges from soliciting campaign cash violate their First Amendment rights — a verdict that could lead to more wide-open electioneering.” (See Gavel Grab to learn about the case.)

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JAS, Partner: Outside Groups Boost TV Ad Spending on Court Races

Special interest groups have dramatically boosted their TV ad expenditures to influence state supreme court races in five states with less than a week to go until Election Day, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said on Thursday.

jas_logoIn an analysis focusing on contests in Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio, JAS and its partner organization said outside groups have spent nearly $2.1 million on TV ad buys for the general election, with nearly $1 million of that sum spent over the last week.

20100304214046_Brennan_Logo_2007_small-3When spending by political parties is also included, total non-candidate TV ad spending jumps to nearly $4.5 million for the general election.

“Partisans and special interests often rely on last-minute campaign ads to turn out their base and tip judicial contests,” said Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, in a joint statement. “Voters get a barrage of nasty ads and scary music, but little of the information they need to make informed choices.” Read more

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Pariente: ‘Assault on a Pillar of Our Democracy’ in Kansas

Justice Pariente

Justice Pariente

A high court judge from Florida who faced a special interest and partisan drive against her own retention (yes-or-no) election in 2012 is speaking out about an effort to unseat two Kansas Supreme Court justices over a single ruling in a criminal case.

At, Florida Justice Barbara Pariente has an op-ed voicing concern about the effort to deny retention to Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson. They participated in a 6-1 state Supreme Court ruling that overturned death penalties, but not the underlying convictions, for two brothers convicted in a quadruple killing. The victims’ families are part of the anti-retention effort. Justice Pariente writes:

“While the pain of the victims’ families cannot possibly be overstated, it also appears that politicians may be trying to use this case to advance themselves and their agenda. This callous, cynical use of a true tragedy for partisan gain is an assault on a pillar of our democracy.

“The Constitution guarantees every American due process and a fair trial, even when upholding these rights is unpopular. I fear that these protections may ultimately be threatened when judges who stand for election come under campaign pressure.”

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Last-Minute Judicial Election Ad Blitz Ahead in North Carolina?

Will North Carolina voters see an eleventh-hour blitz of TV advertising in races for the state Supreme Court? It appears that way, according to media accounts reporting an influx of outside spending for TV air time.

The conservative Justice for All NC group has received more than $400,000 from the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee and has purchased air time on at least five TV stations, according to reports by the (Charlotte) Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer. Read more

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Editorial Decries Notion of ‘Justice for Sale, Inquire Within’

“It’s getting to the point that courthouses where elected justices work may as well start posting signs, ‘Justice for sale, inquire within.'”

JusticeForSaleThat’s the lament of a Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News editorial reflecting on a recent pornographic email scandal that swept up Justice Seamus McCaffery, leading to his suspension and then retirement, and also urging adoption of merit selection of top state judges.

“Judicial elections are getting more expensive and more partisan at the expense of [a judge's] qualifications,” Suzanne Almeida of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which advocates for a switch to merit selection, told the editorial board. PMC is a Justice at Stake partner organization. Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Regarding a ballot measure on judicial selection that Tennessee voters will consider on Election Day (see Gavel Grab), the Vote Yes on 2 committee has reported spending $1.1 million in October, and the Vote No on 2 committee $35,480, according to a Knoxville News Sentinel blog.
  • The Tampa Bay (Florida) Times reported about a ballot measure affecting judicial nominations, “Amendment 3 would let outgoing governor name judges — an unnecessary power, critics say.”
  • “Judicial merit left to local voters,” an Arizona Daily Sun headline stated.

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Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Drops Appeal


Former Justice Joan Orie Melvin

Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin has dropped her appeal and has begun serving her sentence, according to an article by the Associated Press. Her sentence on public corruption charges includes sending apology letters to other state judges and three years of house arrest. (For more background see Gavel Grab.)

Melvin has submitted drafted apology letters, but has been met with contention by District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. “[A]ttempting to deflect blame for her actions to members of her staff can hardly be considered an apology,” Zappala said. His concerns deal with a specific paragraph in Melvin’s draft that reads, “In reflection, I wish I had been more diligent in my supervision of my staff and that I had given them more careful instructions with respect to the prohibition on political activity.” Zappala has forwarded his comments to the sentencing judge, but no response has been received.

Melvin was convicted of using her judicial staffers, who are paid with taxpayer money, for her own state Supreme Court campaigns. This scandal involving the court has been quickly followed by another which resulted in the resignation of Justice Seamus McCaffery, leading some to question the process of electing judges.

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JAS on Illinois Court Retention Election: ‘Here We Go Again’

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 11.25.59 AMWith Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier facing opposition in his retention election from a group heavily funded by plaintiffs’ lawyers, the Republican State Leadership Committee has jumped into the race and spent $950,000 in support of Karmeier, the Chicago Tribune reported. (The article is available through Google.)

“Here we go again,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told the Tribune. Illlinois again has become a battleground state in a “long-running war being fought between plaintiffs’ lawyers and big business” over high courts, the newspaper said, mentioning a record $9.3 million spent when Justice Karmeier was elected in 2004.

Screen shot 2014-10-29 at 11.29.10 AMThe contest has featured fierce advertising. A TV ad aired by Campaign for 2016, the opposition group, said that Justice Karmeier received millions from pro-business interests in 2004 then voted to strike down huge verdicts against State Farm and Philip Morris. “Our justice is not for sale,” the narrator said at its end. The RSLC-sponsored ad says the justice has been tough on violent criminals and stood up to “Chicago trial lawyers who have tried to buy the courts.” Read more

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • In Pennsylvania, a political deal may be in the works to appoint one Republican and one Democrat to one new vacancy and one upcoming vacancy on the state Supreme Court, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said.
  • John Jay Hooker, a critic of proposed Amendment 2 in Tennessee, has questioned the constitutionality of the way the votes for it will be counted, the Associated Press reported.
  • “Council, gov candidates warm to idea of judicial reviews,” the Statehouse News Service reported about developments in Massachusetts.
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Editorial: Is Justice ‘For Sale to the Highest Bidder’?

law-cash-21816475With millions of dollars from special interest groups pouring into state judicial elections, a USA Today editorial joins a growing media outcry deploring the current trends and urging reform.

“At best, the system no longer appears fair. At worst, justice is for sale to the highest bidder,” the editorial laments. “Until more join up” with adoption of public financing for judicial elections, as have New Mexico and and West Virginia, the editorial says,
“anyone who goes to court will have to wonder whether the judge on the bench is handing down justice or repaying a favor.”

To back up its assertions about spending trends in judicial elections, the editorial linked to data compiled by Justice at Stake and partner organizations. Read more

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