Gavel Grab

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Top Judge: Bills Would Inject Ugly Partisan Politics into Judiciary

Justice AbrahamsonIf it enacts certain legislation before it, the Wisconsin legislature will be “injecting the ugliness of partisan politics into the judiciary,” Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson says.

Not only will the Republican-led legislature consider next year allowing members of the Supreme Court to choose the chief justice, instead of the longest-serving justice holding that post, but it will consider requiring mandatory retirement of judges at an age that would force the 81-year-old Abrahamson to retire, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here is the Chief Justice’s response:

“To the extent that either enactment affects presently sitting judges and justices, it ignores and overturns the vote of the people. The people elected the members of the judiciary for a fixed term and a set office. The Wisconsin constitution should not be used to target judges. If the Legislature adopts these proposals, it is frustrating the electorate and injecting the ugliness of partisan politics into the judiciary, a nonpartisan independent branch of government.”

The measure changing the selection of the chief justice was passed in 2013 and must be passed again by the legislature in its upcoming two-year session in order to be considered by voters statewide as a constitutional amendment.

A leading Democrat in the legislature suggested the mandatory retirement age measure was aimed at Chief Justice Abrahamson (see Gavel Grab).

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Bill on Switch to Partisan Court Elections Actually a ‘Poke’?

washington_flag_mapThere’s more pushback from the Washington state legislature over state Supreme Court rulings about the inadequacy of funding for public education.

A bill filed in the House by 19 representatives would shift the state from holding nonpartisan races for the Supreme Court to partisan races, and one of its sponsors labeled it more of a “poke” than substantive legislation, according to a Seattle Times blog.

The first section of the bill states, “The legislature finds that because the supreme court has decided to act like the legislature and has thus violated the separation of powers, the supreme court should be considered partisan like the legislature.” Read more

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FEC Chair Ravel Will Seek Sunlight for ‘Dark Money’

The newly chosen chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, Ann Ravel, told the Center for Public Integrity that she will fight for transparency of what now is political “dark money,” regardless of the political party tied to it.

“The Kochs, they are not a problem to me, nor are their activities specifically anything I want to address,” Ravel said. “Dark money is a broader problem — a much broader problem. It’s a problem for those on the Democratic side as well as the Republican side. It’s not a partisan question for me.”

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Among bills prefiled in the South Carolina legislature are measures to change or end the way the legislature elects judges, according to Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts.
  • Progressive Pulse, a blog of North Carolina Policy Watch, discussed reports “about judges who are taking critical look at how court decisions are impacting their communities.”
  • “Here Come the Million Dollar Judges,” an essay by Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress (see Gavel Grab), was reprinted by Newsweek.
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Scholar: Obama Has Diversified the Bench in a Historic Way

white-house-job-1The scope of President Obama’s imprint on the nation’s federal courts is coming into focus. A longtime expert on judicial nominations says Obama’s legacy on shaping a more diverse bench is sweeping and historic.

“What Obama has done within terms of his judicial legacy is what no other president has ever done before and it’s doubtful that any future president is going to match it,” Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told TIME. “Obama has diversified the bench in terms of gender, ethnicity, nationality to an extent never, ever, ever done before.”

The TIME report also mentions that according to an academic study, Obama is “on track to be the first president in U.S. history to have a majority of his judicial nominees be either women or persons of color.” In President Reagan’s administration, by contrast, white men made up 85% of appointed judges. Read more

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Brown Brushes Off Criticism of his High Court Nominee

Gov. Jerry Brown’s nomination of Leondra Kruger, a 38-year-old U.S. Department of Justice employee, for the California Supreme Court is getting some heat.

Ric Sims, a retired appellate judge, questioned her lack of judicial experience and working knowledge of California law, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog. 

Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said about Kruger, who would become the sole African American justice on the state’s highest court, “Were there no qualified African Americans in California?” Read more

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JAS Condemns ‘Brazen Political Attack’ on S.C. Judicial Independence


BULLETIN: “This is a brazen political attack on the independence of the judicial branch, of the ‘end run’ variety,” said Debra Erenberg, Justice at Stake Director of State Affairs. “Judges can’t do their jobs when legislators threaten their livelihood for ruling on properly-presented legal cases. The legislative branch needs to respect the unique role of courts in protecting everyone’s rights, regardless of whether it’s politically popular or expedient to do so.”  

A bill filed in the South Carolina House Judiciary Committee would automatically remove from the case any judges who recognize or uphold marriages for same-sex couples, according to Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts.

“No state or local taxpayer funds or governmental salaries may be paid for an activity that includes the licensing or support of same-sex marriage,” the bill states. It also declares, “No state or local governmental employee officially shall recognize, grant, or enforce a same-sex marriage license.”

The bill goes on to say, “If a judicial officer violates this section, that judicial officer is disqualified from office pursuant to Section 19, Article V of the South Carolina Constitution, 1895.” According to Gavel to Gavel, that provision says, “The General Assembly shall specify the grounds for disqualification of Justices and judges to sit on certain cases. The General Assembly shall also provide for the temporary appointment of men learned in the law to sit as special Justices and judges when the necessity for such appointment shall arise.” Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Court arguments about whether plaintiffs’ lawyers in a judicial election-related racketeering lawsuit can depose Illinois Justice Lloyd Karmeier (see Gavel Grab for background) are reported by the Madison-St. Clair Record. Its article is headlined, “Hale attorneys deny accusing State Farm of bribing Justice; Defense points to discovery answer, ‘purchasing the vote.’”
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Judge Vacates Conviction of Teen Executed 70 Years Ago

Stinney, in archived photos

Stinney, in archived photos

The New York Times has an intriguing article about a rare action taken by a state court. In South Carolina, Circuit Judge Carmen T. Mullen vacated a murder conviction from 1944 of a 14-year-old defendant who subsequently was executed, it reports.

The defendant was George J. Stinney Jr., an African American convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of two white girls. The judge found that  fundamental constitutional safeguards were not accorded Stinney in the Jim Crow South.

According to the Times, “The order was a rare application of coram nobis, a legal remedy that can be used only when a conviction was based on an error of fact or unfairly obtained in a fundamental way and when all other remedies have been exhausted.” Read more

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Though Senate Confirms Many Judges, Some Nominees Left in Limbo

The Senate adjourned this week after having confirmed the most federal judges in a two-year Congress since 1980, the Washington Post reported. At the same time, opposition left some judicial nominees in limbo.

One was Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, according to RH Reality Check. He had encountered outcries from leading Democrats and some groups supporting them over  past positions taken by then-legislator Boggs on volatile issues including the Confederate flag, abortion rights and marriage for same-sex couples (see Gavel Grab).

Another was Jennifer May-Parker, nominated for the Eastern District of North Carolina, according to the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. Her nomination became stalled after Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., blocked it through an arcane Senate procedure called the “blue slip” (see Gavel Grab), without publicly explaining his reason. Read more

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