Gavel Grab

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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



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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Barron’s Essay: ‘Give Judges Gavels; Take Away Their Tin Cups’

Sales-Tax-money-gavel“The Price of Justice” has become threatening in state judicial elections, Skip Kaltenheuser writes in a Barron’s commentary bearing that title and citing data from Justice at Stake. He urges, “Give judges gavels; take away their tin cups.”

The Barron’s piece offers a thumbnail factual history of the soaring costs of judicial elections and the increasing role of special interests, mixed with strong opinion.  The Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision “threatens the integrity of state courts,” Kaltenheuser writes, drawing on “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12.

The report was co-authored by JAS and two partner organizations. Not only did independent spending on judicial elections rise sharply in that election cycle over the pre-Citizens United record; “Television ads backing candidates for high courts took a huge leap—over a quarter funded by special interests, much of it attack ads involving hot button issues and wild distortions of controversial rulings,” the commentary notes. Read more

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Pennsylvania Senate Scuttles Court-Cutting Proposal

1048px-Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Pennsylvania.svgThe Pennsylvania Senate voted 40-10 on Thursday to kill a proposal for reducing the size of the state Supreme Court by two justices and the state Superior Court by four judges. reported that senators opposed to the proposal had contended earlier it could have a harmful impact on a caseload in the appellate courts that already is heavy.

An advocate for the reductions, however, argued that the Legislature has been pressured to tighten its belt, while the courts seemed to evade the same pressure.  ”I think reducing the size of the Supreme and Superior Court is not going to cause any dysfunction in our system,” said Sen. John Wozniak, a Democrat. Read more

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And the Emmy Goes to a Civics Education Effort, Featuring O’Connor

The National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) has been awarded with an Emmy for its film “Fair and Free” featuring Justice at Stake Honorary Chair, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  As a part of a groundbreaking civics education campaign the film addresses “a dangerous gap in civic literacy in our nation.”

Digital Journal announced in a press release that the Emmy was presented by the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  It was the only award given in the Public Service Announcement category.  Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, a judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Washington, DC and NAWJ President made a statement on the importance of the campaign.

“Each day in American courts, thousands of judges preside over cases ranging from traffic offenses to tax and land disputes, child abuse and murder. The judicial system reflects the fabric of life in this country. And unlike legislators, a judge must stand apart from political and partisan ideas, and ensure each litigant’s case receives a fair and impartial hearing, with a resolution based on the law. That is the foundation of the public’s trust and confidence in the courts.”

The National Association of Women Judges is a Justice at Stake partner organization.  For more news on public education efforts, see other posts from Gavel Grab here.

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Pennsylvania Court-Shrinking Bill is Questioned

Proposals to shrink two Pennsylvania appellate courts raise serious questions about ensuring access to justice for all state residents, Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has warned.

“The Superior Court is already one of the busiest in the country. Reducing the number of judges while the caseload remains the same will result in increased delays and fewer published opinions,” said Lynn Marks,  executive director of PMC, according to a Pennsylvania Record article.  “And because the right to a speedy trial in criminal matters is a constitutionally protected right, the delays will disproportionately affect family court matters and business matters.”

“Reducing the number of [state Supreme Court] justices will likely have a negative impact on how the entire court system functions and lead to a decrease in the number of cases the Supreme Court agrees to hear,” said Marks. “The potential negative impact of these provisions cannot be overstated.”

Both courts would be reduced under the legislation (see Gavel Grab). To see a press release by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization, click here.

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