Gavel Grab

Column: Solution to Williams-Yulee – ‘Eliminate Judicial Elections’

Guest columnist Joe Brown has a simple solution to eliminate the controversy surrounding the Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar case (see Gavel Grab for background) in front of the U.S. Supreme Court… “Appoint judges instead of electing them.”

Brown’s column in The Tampa Tribune discusses when he first realized he was not in favor of judicial elections.

“The idea first came to me about 12 years ago after a string of frustrating interviews with judicial candidates that left me with no idea about their qualifications to sit on the bench. “

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • SCOTUSblog reports that several new books about Supreme Court Justices will be available in 2015, including The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – available now – which “has contributions by journalists, scholars, judges, and practicing lawyers”; a book on Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor by Linda Hirshman; and a children’s book about Justice Sonya Sotomayor.
  • An article from The Daily Beast describes a possible conflict of interest in Oklahoma, where Judge Jerome A. Holmes has decided not to recuse himself from a death penalty appeal. Holmes defended the trial court’s sentencing and mocked the DA’s claims of racial prejudice in an op-ed in 2002.
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Friendship Nine Activists Exonerated; Hope to ‘lead by example’

Historical marker outside the diner.

Historical marker outside the diner.

The Friendship Nine, civil rights activists who were arrested in 1961 for sitting at the lunch counter of a segregated diner, were exonerated this week in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The group was the first to use a “jail, no bail” tactic which later became a popular tool in the Civil Rights Movement, a Reuters article explains.

The judge presiding over the hearing, John C. Hayes III, is a nephew of the judge that sentenced the group over 50 years ago. “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right it,” Judge John C Hayes III said. Their 30-day sentences at the county prison farm were not the end of their punishment. They were harassed by the police, and some even had to move away to find jobs.

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Ohio Chief Justice, Pushing for Reform, Releases Poll Data

VOTERA poll of Ohio voters shows that 56 percent “believe some unqualified people are elected to the bench due to problems with elections,” the Columbus Dispatch reported, and 44 percent agree or strongly agree that “courts are primarily political institutions where rival groups seek advantage under the law.”

On a more positive note for the courts, 76 percent said they agree or strongly agree when asked if  the “court system is the key protector of individual liberty, safety and property.”

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would shift judicial elections to off-years, in order for them to get more attention from voters. She released the polling data on Thursday. Read more

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Top Alabama Judge: Federal Court Ruling Not Binding

Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court said on Wednesday he does not find a federal judge’s ruling, striking down a ban on marriage for same-sex couples as unconstitutional, to be binding on the probate judges who would be asked to issue such marriage licenses.

At the same time, according to the Birmingham News, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a judicial ethics complaint against Chief Justice Moore over his remarks in a letter to Alabama’s governor earlier (see Gavel Grab). The complaint said:

“It is difficult to imagine a more patent and undeniable violation of the prohibition against public comment on ‘impending’ cases than for the sitting Chief Justice to advise an entire class of judges on how they must rule on what likely will be hundreds of license applications to be filed in just two short weeks.” Read more

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High Court Orders Stays of Three Oklahoma Executions

The U.S. Supreme Court, having announced last week it would hear a case challenging the lethal injection used to execute condemned Oklahoma prisoners, ordered on Wednesday a stay of execution for three prisoners bringing the appeal.

According to a New York Times article, the court’s action on Wednesday “arrived too late for a fourth petitioner in the case, Charles F. Warner, who was executed on Jan. 15 after the court rejected his stay application in a 5-to-4 vote. That sequence of events brought attention to a gap in the court’s internal procedures, which require the votes of four justices to add a case to the court’s docket, but five to stop an execution.”

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Politico reports that opposition from both sides of the aisle has jettisoned a GOP push to make Supreme Court nominees filibuster-proof.
  • The Rocky Mount Telegram urges the North Carolina Legislature to make court funding a budgetary priority.
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SC Legislator Asks ‘Improper’ Questions of Judicial Candidates

A survey by a South Carolina legislator to potential judges asking questions regarding religion, marriage equality and numerous other personal matters has been deemed inappropriate by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission.

According to The State, freshman state Rep. Jonathon Hill issued a 30-question survey to judicial candidates. The questions ranged from opinions on equal pay for women to asking if they believe in the “Supreme Being.”

“Answering these questions amounts to a promise to decide future cases in accordance with this political pledge,” University of South Carolina law school ethics expert Greg Adams said. “Some of the questions amount to a religious test to hold public office, barred by the U.S. Constitution.”

The state’s Code of Judicial Conduct also bars candidates from answering many of the questions.

“You live and learn,” Hill told the paper. “Maybe next year I’ll be in a better position to — if I put out a questionnaire — to craft it in a way that would work a little bit better.”

Judicial elections are controversial in South Carolina, where legislators elect judges.

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More Editorials Underscore Importance of Judicial Impartiality

Two more editorials were published Tuesday, adding to the rallying support for the Florida State Bar in the Williams-Yulee Supreme Court case. (See Gavel Grab for more details.)

Last week’s oral arguments largely came down to weighing the appearance of judicial independence with a candidate’s free speech rights, Michael Bobelian explained in Forbes. The 2014 McCutcheon decision narrowly defined political corruption as quid-pro-quo, so The Court will have to walk a thin line if they are going to uphold the Florida rule prohibiting judicial candidates from directly soliciting money. “The assumption at the oral argument was that though other elected officials could legitimately be swayed or influenced through campaign contributions, judges shouldn’t be,” and that differentiation could come down to the appearance of impartiality.

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N.H. House Panel to Look at Possible Impeachment of Judge

New Hampshire state Rep. Daniel Itse has sponsored a measure asking the state House of Representatives to explore whether to launch impeachment proceedings against Judge Jacalyn A. Colburn, a Superior Court judge, over a ruling in September.

According to a Nashua Telegraph article last month, Itse thinks the judge inserted personal belief into her ruling, involving addition of a city charter amendment to last November’s ballot. The newspaper said Itse “has sponsored or co-sponsored the removal of multiple judges in the past four years.” Read more

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