Gavel Grab

Citing JAS, Stateline Spotlights Perils of Big-Spending Judicial Elections

With partisan and special interest groups “pouring” money into state judicial elections, the stakes for preserving fair and impartial courts are high, Justice at Stake and a partner group warn in a Stateline article.

JAS-LogoRegarding the corrosive effect of this special interest spending, JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told Stateline, “The public has become firmly convinced that justice is for sale.”

“Courts are under threat,” said Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice. “What they (special interests) are trying to do is shape who’s sitting on our courts and shape decisions.”

In addition to reporting on judicial election trends, Stateline discusses legislative efforts in states such as Kansas to change the way supreme court justices are selected by giving more authority to the governor and legislators. Read more

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Bipartisan Push for Constitutional Amendment in Tennessee

Haslam (left) and Bredesen (right) in WBIR image

Haslam (left) and Bredesen (right) in WBIR image

In a joint Knoxville appearance, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee and former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen made a bipartisan pitch for voters to approve a ballot item that would change the way appeals judges are selected.

According to a WBIR report, the duo cautioned that defeat of the proposal could open the door to out-of-state special interest groups pouring money into efforts to “buy” state courts and influence judicial selection.

“I think as a practical matter we will just get much better judges, a much better judicial process in the state” with passage of the amendment, Bredesen said. Read more

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Local Commissioner: Michigan Facing Crisis in the Courts

County courts in Michigan are short millions of dollars after the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that courts could not make defendants bear part of the costs of trials, writes Allegan County Commissioner Jon Campbell in a Grand Haven Tribune op-ed. Courts can only impose fees that are authorized by the legislature.

These courts have been limited in their function since the ruling was passed down in June and are waiting for the Legislature to identify new funding sources (unlikely in an election year) or restore authority to implement “user fees.” Campbell, who urges quick action by legislators in order to avert a crisis, is incoming president of the Michigan Association of Counties.

If the courts aren’t sufficiently funded, citizens could see long delays and large backlogs of cases, limiting their access to justice.

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Outside Spending Fears Debated in N.C. Court Race

With North Carolina Supreme Court elections barely seven weeks off, two candidates who have faced critical campaign ads voiced a concern that heavy outside spending damages public trust in impartial courts.

The concerns were aired by incumbent Justice Robin Hudson and Court of Appeals Judge Sam Ervin IV at an event sponsored by the Federalist Society, the Associated Press reported.

“It is unrealistic to expect that in the current environment there will not be outside dollars,” responded Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson,  who said “my prayer is that they will be positive, if they’re any that run in the fall.” He is challenging Justice Hudson. Read more

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With Little Time Left, Will Senate Confirm More Federal Judges?

CapitolflagWith little time remaining before the Senate recesses for the midterm elections, the chamber could have significant impact by confirming a number of President Obama’s pending judicial nominees, Raymond Lodato blogs for The Hill.

Sixty vacancies remain on trial and appeals court benches, Lodato writes, and each vacancy “delays the administration of justice for individuals, businesses, and non-profit groups seeking resolution of their claims.”

A stepped-up pace in the Senate for confirming judicial nominees has drawn media attention recently, including analysis of Obama’s reshaping the face of the appellate bench over six years (see Gavel Grab). One newspaper looking at the local impact was the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, where a headline stated, “New Orleans-based U.S. appeals court among few with mostly GOP appointees, NY Times reports.”

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Amid continuing commentary about a domestic assault charge against a federal district judge in Alabama, the Montgomery Advertiser reported, “Senators Shelby, Sessions want Mark Fuller to resign,” and Politico reported, “Not just NFL — calls to bench judge.”
  • In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Moment at Hand,” Linda Greenhouse discussed changing attitudes about marriage for same-sex couples, and the courts, and whether the Supreme Court may take up the issue in its upcoming term.
  • An article in the Sierra Vista (Arizona) Herald by local Justice of the Peace Tim Dickerson discussed judicial selection in the state and said voters have resisted recent efforts to change merit-based selection of many state judges.
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‘No’ Vote Urged on Potential Court-Packing Amendment

Voting BoothsIn November, Florida voters will face a ballot item for a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow an outgoing governor to make certain prospective appointments of judges. A Tampa Tribune editorial is urging a “no” vote.

“A governor who just lost an election or is leaving because of term limits should not be allowed to pack the court with like-minded jurists on the way out the door,” the editorial explains. “That authority would be better vested with a newly elected governor who has just won a popular vote. Or perhaps a compromise of shared authority between the outgoing and incoming governors might be a fairer solution.” Read more

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Editorial: Time to Weigh Reform of Judicial Elections in Florida

Florida_quarter,_reverse_side,_2004“Filling the bench” is becoming a campaign issue in Florida, says a Miami Herald editorial that urges consideration of major reform.

The editorial touches on questions raised about the records of both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist, before favoring an appointive system for choosing lower-court judges:

“The current system means anyone can challenge a sitting county or circuit judge — even if they’ve only practiced law for a handful of years. Running for the bench is the same as running for dog catcher.

“It’s time to consider making judicial candidates stop saying ‘Vote for me!’ and let governors make the appointments. Removing the politics first, however, will be the hard part of any overhaul.” Read more

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Ex-Justice Warns: Don’t Put Montana Judges on ‘Auction Block’

Retired Justice Nelson

Retired Justice Nelson

“Montana’s judiciary must not be forced onto the auction block,” retired state Supreme Court Justice James Nelson writes in an outspoken Montana Standard op-ed. Signing the opinion with him were retired Justices Terry Trieweiler, Jim Regnier, Bill Leaphart, Bill Hunt and John (Skeff) Sheehy.

Tracing special interest and partisan spending in recent supreme court elections held in other states, and the pouring of “dark money” into judicial elections in the wake of Citizens United, Justice Nelson says the same trends could affect Montana judicial elections and have a frightening impact.

“No Montanan wants to litigate in a court where the fix is in because the judge or justice is beholden to those who spent him or her onto the bench,” he writes. “Montanans deserve fair, impartial, independent and non-partisan judges and justices elected by Montana voters—not political hacks, bought and paid for by out of state dark money. Our civil justice system is at stake.” Read more

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Editorial Debate: Court ‘Out of Control,’ or ‘Pragmatic’?

washington_flag_mapA Washington Supreme Court ruling finding the legislature in contempt of court for failing to fully fund public education has sparked widely divergent views from editorial boards, the ABA Journal reports.

“The state Supreme Court is out of control,” declared a Walla Walla Union-Bulletin editorial. “[E]ven if the state had spare cash galore, it’s the Legislature — not the Supreme Court — that decides how it is spent. State government (like the federal government) is supposed to maintain a separation of power between the three branches of government — judicial, legislative and executive.”

A Seattle Times editorial said, “The Supreme Court’s pragmatic decision puts the state Legislature’s emphasis where it should be — on fixing the school-finance system.” The editorial credited the court for sparing any sanctions for now and giving legislators until the end of their 2015 session to resolve the issue.

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