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New Report Examines Judicial Nominating Commissions in U.S.

logo_squareThe Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) and its Quality Judges Initiative have released a new report on the judicial nominating commissions used to select supreme court justices in 30 states.

The report is entitled Choosing Judges: Judicial Nominating Commissions and the Selection of Supreme Court Justices. The report states in its conclusion: Read more

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Top N.C. Judge Warns of Perception That ‘Our Courts are for Sale’

Chief Justice Parker

Chief Justice Parker

Chief Justice Sarah Parker of the North Carolina Supreme Court, who will retire Saturday, recently spotlighted her concerns about the impact on impartial courts of high-spending and increasingly politicized judicial elections.

“(I)f people perceive that our courts are for sale, they will lose confidence in the ability of courts to be fair and impartial,” she told the North Carolina Bar Association in Wilmington, according to the (Charlotte) Observer. “…We must have judges committed to the rule of law … without regard to politics, special interests or personal agenda.”

The newspaper’s article profiling Justice Parker said she supported the state’s public financing program for judicial elections, which the General Assembly eliminated last year. Her remarks this summer came on the heels Read more

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Ten Court-Related Items on State Ballots This Fall

A constitutional amendment to change the way appellate judges are selected in Tennessee is among 10 court-related items that will appear on nine state ballots this fall, according to Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts.

Two of the ballot items will involve mandatory retirement for judges. In Hawaii, voters will weigh raising from 70 to 80 the mandatory retirement age. In Louisiana, voters will consider eliminating a mandatory retirement age entirely.

In Florida, voters will consider a ballot item that would allow a governor who is stepping down to make appointments to the bench for vacancies that occur on inauguration day. Read more

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Judicial Election Deluge of ‘Big Political Money’ in National News

gavel_cash-300x202What could be the biggest state court election this year is beginning to attract more national news media attention. Bloomberg Businessweek has now zeroed in on the Tennessee Supreme Court retention election with an article entitled, “Big Political Money Now Floods Judges’ Races, Too.”

Businessweek highlights the activity of outside groups “known for spending to influence presidential and congressional elections.” They have bought TV and radio advertising targeting three Tennessee justices seeking a new term. The justices, appointed by a Democratic governor (see Gavel Grab for background), have raised money and fought back with their own TV ads. The article also spotlights increasing spending on once-inexpensive judicial races by outside groups since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010.

“After the Citizens United ruling, the focus on outside spending was of course on federal races,”  Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, told Businessweek. “But then everybody figured out that they could do the same thing at the state races.” NIMSP is a Justice at Stake partner organization. Read more

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JAS: Will AFP ‘Transform Judicial Politics in the United States’?

Image From State Government Leadership Foundation Ad

Image From State Government Leadership Foundation Ad

The air wars have begun in earnest over Tennessee’s Aug. 7 Supreme Court election. Justice at Stake said the engagement of one outside group, Americans for Prosperity, has the potential to “transform judicial politics in the United States.”

Out-of-state groups spending to unseat three  Supreme Court justices now include the Koch brothers-linked AFP, the Republican State Leadership Committee (which distributed fliers) and the State Government Leadership Foundation, a RSLC partner group,  said JAS and the Brennan Center for Justice.

“The continued flood of money into judicial elections from all sides is already a threat to impartial justice.  But if AFP has decided to spend the kind of money in a judicial race that it has spent in other contests around the country, this could transform judicial politics in the United States,” noted Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, in a statement.  “More judges are feeling trapped in a system that is persuading many people that justice is for sale.”

“The ads in Tennessee are just the latest in a disturbing trend of outside groups attempting to influence who sits on our courts,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “People need to feel that Read more

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Governor Nominates Law Professor Cuéllar for CA High Court

Cuéllar

Cuéllar

Gov. Jerry Brown has nominated Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a Stanford law professor and Mexican-born immigrant to the United States, to the California Supreme Court.

Cuéllar has served under Presidents Obama and Clinton and has an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and advanced degrees from Yale Law School and Stanford, according to the Los Angeles Times. If confirmed, Cuéllar would be the only Latino serving on the state’s highest court, NBC News reported.

In commending Brown’s choice, the  National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said, “It is vital that the state’s highest court reflect the full diversity of its residents.” Read more

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Report: Underfunded State Courts at ‘Tipping Point of Dysfunction’

gavel_jarofcoins“[A]dequate court funding is a smart use of the public’s resources,” say the authors of a new white paper on court budget cuts, yet “The sad reality facing America is that many of our state court systems are so poorly funded that they are at a tipping point of dysfunction.”

The report is entitled “The Economics of Justice,” and it was issued by DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

The white paper examines analyses of court funding that lead overall, according to a DRI press release, “to the inescapable conclusion that underfunding of state court systems results in the loss of hundreds of millions annually to state economies.” Read more

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JAS: Tennessee’s Turn for ‘Bare-Knuckle’ Court Campaign

Image from new Tennessee Forum ad

Image from new Tennessee Forum ad

As advertising ramps up in the Tennessee Supreme Court retention election, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice voiced concerns on Monday about the impact on impartial courts.

A new TV ad sponsored by the Tennessee Forum states that ”The most liberal place in Tennessee … is the Tennessee Supreme Court,” and a headline adds, “Our Supreme Court Liberal on Crime,” according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

“Bare-knuckle Supreme Court campaigns have been spreading around the country, and now it’s Tennessee’s turn,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, in a statement.

“The new ad is right out of the usual playbook, accusing judges of being soft on crime. As spending accelerates on both sides, yet another state court is being pressured to raise big money and answer to interest groups and politicians,” he added. Justice at Stake also reported on TV ad time purchases by the Tennessee Forum (at least $119,055) and the justices’ campaigns (at least $201,495). Read more

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In New Era, Brandenburg Fears ‘Politics Without Accountability’

Bert Brandenburg

Bert Brandenburg

It’s a risk for our democracy when the newspaper business is in decline, there are far fewer reporters covering state capitols and outside political spending is booming, a Daily Beast article suggests while quoting Justice at Stake.

When rising outside money is combined with diminished press coverage, it “adds up to an increased risk that democracy operates secretly in plain sight,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told the Daily Beast. He also chairs the board of the National Institute on Money and State Politics, a JAS partner organization.

People have more tools to access information in the Internet era, “But information doesn’t transmit itself,” said Brandenburg, who served as spokesman for Attorney General Janet Reno. “There’s never a replacement for a paid nose to sniff things out.” Read more

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JAS Applauds ‘O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan’ for States

Retired Justice O'Connor, center; Rebecca Love Kourlis of IAALS, right; former Arizona Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, left

Retired Justice O’Connor, center; Rebecca Love Kourlis of IAALS, right; former Arizona Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, left

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System released on Wednesday the O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan, which Justice at Stake applauded. Justice O’Connor is Justice at Stake’s Honorary Chair.

“In recent years, I have been distressed to see persistent efforts in some states to politicize the bench and the role of our judges,” Justice O’Connor explained in an IAALS letter.  “This Plan is a step toward developing systems that prioritize the qualifications and impartiality of judges, while still building in tools for accountability through an informed election process. Our recommendations here can help states set a course toward improving and refining their processes, and, ultimately, strengthening their judiciary. We all must seek to achieve those goals, because the courts are the bulwark of our democracy and we can ill afford to see them undermined.” Read more

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