Gavel Grab

Article Spotlights 'Stealth Campaign to Buy America's Courts'

law-cash-21816475The latest national publication spotlighting efforts of special interest groups to put their stamp on state courts through judicial elections is The Nation, in a lengthy article that quotes Justice at Stake and a partner organization.

The Nation article focuses in part on on the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national partisan organization, that has channeled money into multiple state judicial elections and at least one local election so far. It’s entitled, “The Stealth Campaign to Buy America’s Courts.”

“With ideological groups increasingly eager to buy seats on state-level benches, judges are forced to act more like politicians, turning to lawyers and other parties who may later appear before them in court to raise campaign cash,” the article reports in mentioning dangers of the current trends. Read more

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TV Ad Spending in Judicial Elections Climbs to $9.1 Million

TV ad spending in state judicial elections has exceeded $9.1 million so far this year, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said on Friday.

JAS-LogoIn the general elections that will be concluded on Nov. 4,  political parties, outside groups, and judicial candidates have spent more than $6.1 million on TV ads. When coupled with estimates for supreme court primaries and off-cycle elections, the total is more than $8.8 million.

20100304214046_Brennan_Logo_2007_small (3)With political parties and outside groups accounting for nearly 63 percent of TV ad spending since January, they have dominated judicial election spending this year. In the forefront of TV ad spending in judicial election battleground states is Michigan, with more than $2.9 million spent on TV ads to date, the groups said in a news release. Read more

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Editorial: End PA 'Embarrassment,' Adopt Merit Selection

justice-scalesAn email scandal that has resulted in the suspension of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery (see Gavel Grab) “should be the straw that breaks the back of the antiquated judicial election system,” declares an editorial in The Sentinel.

The editorial calls for a switch to merit-based selection of judges, which long has been advocated by reformists yet never adopted by the legislature.

“Integrity, character and trust are essential to public faith in the court system. It’s time for the Legislature to heed the calls for reform and adopt merit selection of the state’s appellate judges. Let’s end the embarrassment,” the editorial says.

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Court Says Candidate for KY Judge Can Campaign as Republican

In Kentucky, U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar said a candidate for a state district judgeship can say in campaign materials that he’s a conservative Republican.

The ruling in the case of candidate Cameron Blau invalidated a judicial ethics canon barring judicial candidates from stumping for election as a member of a political party, but it was not clear, the Associated Press said, whether the court’s order applied to every judicial candidate.

It also was not clear whether the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission would appeal the new ruling. Jeffrey Mando, a lawyer representing the commission, said, “I think that the canon is important because it supports the (state’s) compelling interest in diminishing the reliance on political parties in the selection of judges and it promotes the nonpartisan nature of judicial elections in Kentucky.”

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Study Looks at Judicial Elections and Environmental Rulings

With North Carolina voters asked to choose four state Supreme Court justices on Nov. 4, a Facing South article cites a legal scholar’s new study as a way of illustrating how crucial elections can be to a court’s rulings on environmental law.

“Over the last fifteen years, in every instance in which the [North Carolina] Court has reviewed a major environmental law issue, the Court has sided with the anti-environmental protection side of the dispute,” John Echeverria of Vermont Law School writes in the study. The state’s high court, he says, “has become a virtual sinkhole for environmental law.” Here is an abstract of the study: Read more

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On Campaign Trail, Kansas Court Ruling a Hot Topic

Sam Brownback, Paul DavisThe final, contentious weeks of the political season are seeing heated debate in Kansas over the state Supreme Court’s voiding death penalty sentences handed two brothers in a notorious quadruple killing. The brothers still face life prison terms in a separate killing.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Thursday endorsed removing two of the justices in the 6-1 court majority in the case, the Associated Press said; the pair, Justices Eric Rosen and Lee Johnson, are the only court members standing for retention in November. Republican Party Chairman called for defeating the two justices.

“I support the families and what they’re pushing — the non-retention vote,” Brownback said. Family members of some of the crime spree victims are advocating against retention of the justices. Brownback is running for reelection, and his campaign has begun a TV ad critical of the Supreme Court and saying opponent Paul Davis stands with “liberal judges who let the Carr brothers off the hook.” Read more

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Tennessee Trial Judge is Reprimanded

Tennessee’s Board of Judicial Conduct has reprimanded a trial court judge whose handling of an assault case, in which a friend who was also a campaign donor represented the defendant, sparked controversy.

The board said Davidson County Judge Casey Moreland had violated three judicial canons and “detrimentally affected the integrity of the Judiciary,” according to The Tennessean.

Judge Moreland decided in the case at issue to provide early release for a defendant whose attorney, Bryan Lewis, was good friends with the judge and had donated to his campaign. The defendant allegedly attacked his victim a second time soon after release (see Gavel Grab).

The judge has apologized. In the wake of the controversy, reforms were adopted.

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Americans for Prosperity Joins Montana High Court Race

Americans for Prosperity has jumped into a Montana Supreme Court race, joining three other outside groups spending to influence the outcome of the contentious contest on Nov. 4.

horizontalblack-17The Missoulian reported that Americans for Prosperity-Montana has begun airing TV and radio ads critical of incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, who is facing challenger Lawrence VanDyke. Americans for Prosperity was founded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The Montana branch of the national groups is initially spending $85,000 on ads in opposition to Justice Wheat.

The advertising says the justice “has a history of supporting extreme, partisan measures” and cites his actions in the legislature as well as a dissent he issued when on the bench. Justice Wheat fired back that the advertising was “pure politics,” amounted to “garbage” and did not truly indicate his judicial record or character. Read more

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Illinois System for Choosing Judges 'Breaking Down': JAS

2003_IL_ProofWith independent spending against an Illinois Supreme Court justice rising in his retention election, Justice at Stake called attention to the situation and said, “The system for picking judges in Illinois is breaking down.”

Lloyd Karmeier’s 2004 fight against Gordon Maag for the Supreme Court set spending records at the time. Now Justice Karmeier is facing opposition in his retention bid from a group called Campaign for 2016. You can learn about the individuals funding it from earlier Gavel Grab posts.

“Interest groups are trying to buy courts, judges are raising money from parties who appear before them, and potential conflicts of interest are multiplying.  It’s no wonder that the public believes that justice is for sale,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a statement on Thursday. Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • U.S. District Judge Katherine Bolan Forrest, who is overseeing the $1.2 billion Silk Road drug case, has been threatened online and had personal information leaked, according to the ABA Journal.
  • USA Today reports that Magistrate Judge Gilbert Breedlove in North Carolina has resigned to avoid having to perform same-sex marriages. His personal, religious beliefs conflicted with the recent ruling of the appeals court that struck down the same-sex marriage ban.
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