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Archive for the 'Election Reforms' Category

Texas Editorial: ‘Axing’ Straight-Party Voting Won’t Fix Selection Flaws

Electing judges is “no way to choose officials who can change Texans’ lives with their decisions,” states a Ft. Worth Star-Telegram editorial.

Of the eight million Texans who voted int he presidential election, only six million voted in four of six races to decide who would sit on the state’s highest appeals courts. With many voters simply skipping the down-ballot races or voting straight-ticket, it is entirely possible most Texans “might have known nothing about the candidates in the six statewide judicial contests.”

For many voters who chose the straight-ticket option, their vote didn’t count at all unless they voted Republican or Libertarian; The Democrats and the Green Party ran candidates in only two statewide races.

“Results like those make it increasingly difficult to buy into the fiction that Texans want to elect their judges,” the editorial states.  Read more

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Washington Post Blog Sees Chance For Filibuster Reform

Regardless of who wins on Election Day, a blog piece from Washington Post’s In The Loop says that one thing to watch for in the early days of the next Senate session is possible action on filibuster reform.

Proponents of filibuster reform are considering exercising the “constitutional option.” According to a 2010 blog piece from Washington Post’s Wonkblog, the constitutional option works around the theory that in order to fulfill Article 1, Section V of the Constitution, which states that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings,” the chair can rule against a filibuster keeping the Senate from determining its own rules and the Senate can then move to settle the issue via majority vote.

The “crux of the argument” for taking the constitutional option, according to the In The Loop piece, is that the previous session’s rules don’t necessarily carry over to the next session. However, the change would have to be made fairly quickly once the new Congress convenes. Read more

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Commentator Assails Michigan Court, Praises Reform Plan

Phil Power, president of a think tank named The Center for Michigan, likes the recommendations for Michigan judicial election reform made recently by a nonpartisan task force, and he thinks they should be more than a conversation-starter.

“When I think about the Michigan Supreme Court, I have to sadly conclude that it represents the very best justice that partisan money can buy. And that’s a scandal and a disgrace,” Power writes in a Holland (Mi.) Sentinel column.

The task force’s report makes for “pretty scary reading,” Power says. He finds disturbing that “[t]he 2010 campaign for our Supreme Court was the most expensive and the most secretive in the nation,” and also that “in the 1990s, a whopping 86 percent of Michigan Supreme Court cases involved contributors to justices’ campaigns, and there’s no reason to think that’s changed.”

The task force, for its leading recommendations, urged full disclosure of all funding for state Supreme Court campaign advertising and open, nonpartisan primaries for the Supreme Court.

“Justice [Marilyn] Kelly’s task force has at least got the conversation started. And even cynics like me might hope that our leaders might, at some point, be willing to do something to benefit our entire state,” Power concludes.

You can learn more about the task force and other appraisals of its findings from Gavel Grab.

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Arkansas Task Force Considers Reforms for Judicial Elections

A task force in Arkansas, created in response to soaring spending in judicial elections in some other states, is weighing possible reforms.

State Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown, chairman of the Arkansas Bar Association’s Task Force on Judicial Election Reform, said at a panel discussion in Little Rock that judicial races ought to be different from races for other elective offices.  “If they’re not different, it will indeed undermine the dignity and the respect for the courts,” he cautioned, according to an Arkansas News article.

The task force is considering these ideas: A response committee to publicly identify falsehoods issued in judicial races; a voter guide with information about candidates for judgeships, provided by the candidates; and urge candidates to pledge voluntarily to run fair campaigns and abide by canons of judicial conduct.

Also participating in the panel was state Sen. Gilbert Baker,  a Republican critic of the task force’s work.

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Divergent Proposals on Partisanship in Court Elections

A bill in Missouri would remove partisanship from most judicial races, while a sharply divergent proposal in North Carolina would restore partisan labels for candidates seeking a seat on the bench.

In Missouri, legislation would strip party identification from candidates for judgeships in parts of the state not covered by the Missouri Plan, a nationally recognized merit-based system for selecting judges.

Under the Missouri Plan, a nominating commission currently submits a slate of three candidates to the Missouri governor, who chooses from that list. The  merit system is used for selecting appellate court judges and trial court judges in urban counties. The judges may be retained or removed by voters later.

Republican State Sen. Kevin Engler said about his bill, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, “When they are elected, we expect them to be nonpartisan.” He asked, why shouldn’t candidates run for office that way, too?

In North Carolina, a bill would require party labels for candidates for District Court, Superior Court, Appellate Court, and the state Supreme Court starting in 2012. For races that have been nonpartisan since 2002, it would add an element of party politics, reported the Carolina Journal.

Republican State Sen. Jerry Tillman, the chief sponsor, explained, “People still believe that partisan labels mean something.” He added, “This gives voters a little something to go off. Does it tell them everything? No. But it tells them more than they know now.”

The issue of whether to have partisan labels for judicial candidates seemed to be getting attention this week; a day ago, Gavel Grab mentioned a proposed referendum in Montana that would require candidates for district court judgeships and the state Supreme Court to run with partisan labels.

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Partisan Judicial Elections Proposed for MT

A proposed referendum for the 2012 ballot in Montana would require candidates for district court judgeships and the state Supreme Court to run with partisan labels.

Currently, the state’s judicial elections are nonpartisan. State Rep. Michael More, a Republican and sponsor of the referendum bill, said about the measure, “The issue is greater transparency in the judicial branch.” According to a Helena Independent Record article, he continued:

“We all bring our biases to the table.

“I think it’s just a matter of maturity to require that (judicial candidates) reveal those biases going into an election.”

But Niki Zupanic, public policy director of the ACLU of Montana, warned, “We strongly feel this will entrench our judiciary in partisan politics.”

And Ed Bartlett, a lobbyist for the Montana Judges Association, said the proposal “would take away, or perhaps be contrary to, the independence and impartiality of the district court judges and Supreme Court justices,” an Associated Press article reported.

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CA Focuses on Judicial Elections and Fairness

California legislators got a glimpse of nasty advertising from other states when the Assembly Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “Judicial Elections in California: Threats to the Perception of Fairness.”

According to a Legal Pad blog post, a video showed out-of-state campaign ads that “smeared various court candidates by linking them to insurers, trial lawyers or heinous criminals supposedly released too soon from prison.” (A video of the entire hearing is available here.)

California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin told the hearing he was “getting closer” to opposing judicial elections completely. “The more that I hear about what’s going on across the country, the more concerned I am,” testified Justice Chin, who chairs the Commission for Impartial Courts.

The hearing included discussion by scholars of the Caperton v. Massey and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Cal Watchdog blog.

Reforms that were discussed include public funding of judicial elections; disclaimers in campaign commercials; and longer terms for trial court judges. The witnesses included University of California, Irvine School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Stanford Law School Professor Pamela Karlan.

California’s  judicial system “is shaped largely by gubernatorial appointments and unremarkable retention elections,” according to Legal Pad blog. But that is not always the case;  California was the scene for a widely publicized retention election revolt in which three justices, including Chief Justice Rose Bird, were voted off the court in 1986 for decisions overturning the death penalty.

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O'Connor Talks Election Reform in MN

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, traveling widely to call for an end to state judicial elections, visited Minnesota to support eliminating contested judicial elections there.

Reformers including former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie are seeking a change in Minnesota’s constitution to replace contested judicial elections with up-or-down retention elections, and to require that gubernatorial appointments of judges be based on merit selection, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Justice O’Connor “advised legislators that if they put such an amendment before Minnesota voters this year, other states will notice, and follow suit,” the Star-Tribune reported. She also said the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United decision likely will bring corporate-sponsored ads to bear on judicial elections.

You can learn more about reform efforts in Minnesota from Gavel Grab, and about appointment/retention systems from Justice at Stake’s issues page.

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Opinion: State Judicial Reforms 'More Essential' Now

State-enacted reforms to protect the integrity of their courts “now…are even more essential” in the wake of a Supreme Court  decision boosting the clout of corporate and union cash in elections, a New York Times column says.

Headlined “Hanging a ‘For Sale’ Sign Over the Judiciary,” the column was written by Dorothy Samuels, a member of the Times’ editorial board. It is one of two fresh and important reports from nationally circulated publications focusing on the impact for states courts of the Citizens United decision; the second, by Tony Mauro in National Law Journal, suggests some judicial reformers actually have found a glimmer of hope after the 5-4 ruling.

Samuels posits that the threat to judicial independence posed by high-spending state judicial campaigns and by special-interest attack ads promises to get “worse, possibly much worse” thanks to the ruling. Her column offers data from Justice at Stake, tracking a dramatic increase in state Supreme Court election fundraising  (calculated at $205.8 million between 2000 and 2009, compared to $84.9 million in the previous decade.)

Samuels quotes from Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote in his dissent that these states “may no longer have the ability to place modest limits on corporate electioneering even if they believe such limits to be critical to maintaining the integrity of their judicial systems.”

Not only will judicial candidates need to spend more time raising campaign money, but an escalating money war could lead to a polarized bench, she cautions. Samuels concludes by quoting retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor:

“To protect the integrity of their court systems, states need to enact basic reforms: switching from judicial elections, for instance, to the selection of judges on merit, or adopting strict rules that bar judges from ruling in cases involving major financial supporters. ‘No states can possibly benefit from having that much money injected into a political judicial campaign,’ Justice O’Connor said on Tuesday. Achieving these reforms won’t be easy, but now they are even more essential.” Read more

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WI Senate Votes to Close 'Issue Ad' Loophole

Wisconsin’s state Senate voted 26-7 Tuesday for a bill to close what critics called a loophole in state law and regulate “issue ads” more tightly. The measure moves to the state Assembly.

The bill would require groups running most types of “issue ads” to disclose their money sources and to comply with fund-raising limits in state law, according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“Issue ads” typically attack or support candidates without explicitly advocating a vote. Last year, Wisconsin passed a bill to curb the influence of special-interest spending in state Supreme Court elections by supporting qualifying candidates with taxpayer funding (see earlier Gavel Grab posts.) That bill did not address issue advertising.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a partner of Justice at Stake, had called passage of the legislation the “single most significant action” that senators could take to improve elections in Wisconsin. You can learn more about disclosure laws for “third-party” campaigns, which have poured millions of dollars into judicial elections, from Justice at Stake’s issue page on the topic.

In another developing news story in Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court could finalize Thursday a proposed order saying that campaign donations to judges will not require judges to step aside from hearing cases involving a supporter. The court voted in October to adopt new rules, but the court has to issue a written order to make the rules effective, the Journal Sentinel reported.

To learn more about the recusal rule debate in Wisconsin, click here for other Gavel Grab stories. You can read about recusal reform from Justice at Stake’s issues page.

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