Gavel Grab

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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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What is the Cost of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Scandal?

An American Law Journal feature on “The Cost of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Scandal and Judges Behaving Badly” includes interviews of guests including Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner group.

“The porn emails got the headlines,” says Marks, referring to the latest scandal (see Gavel Grab), “but that was just the tip of the iceberg.” PMC is advocating for a switch from judicial elections to merit selection of judges in Pennsylvania. A Legal Intelligencer article about the show is available through Google.

Thanks to the How Appealing blog, a YouTube video of the show is available for viewing by clicking here.

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Editorials: Weigh Appointive Systems for Picking Judges

Editorials are calling for consideration of changing the way judges are selected in one state where elections were held recently and another where a scandal has resulted in a new high court vacancy.

In Ohio, a Canton Repository editorial asked, “Is it time to change way judges are selected?” It also asserted, “Chief justice thinks so, but Ohioans need to be brought into the conversation.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, remarking on a high number of uncontested judicial elections in the state this year, recently said Ohio ought to consider appointing judges rather than electing them (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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JAS Partner Spotlights ‘Dark Money’ in MI Judicial Election

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Justice at Stake partner organization, says unreported, unregulated “dark money” bankrolled the majority of costs for TV advertising in Michigan’s 2014 Supreme Court and attorney general campaigns.

iStock_000015670171Small1The Michigan Republican Party spent $4.2 million on ads about Supreme Court candidates “but reported no television advertising to the Michigan Bureau of Elections” due to a loophole in state law, MCFN said in a news release. It said the Center for Individual Freedom, a Virginia-based 501(c)(4) “social welfare” corporation, spent $468,000 for broadcast advertising supportive of the Republican nominees and the advertising was not reported to the Bureau of Elections.

“When such expenditures are not reported, the donors behind the spending are not reported either,” MCFN noted. Read more

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JAS Partner Advocates for Changing Way Ohio Judges are Selected

Ohio’s Chief Justice has sparked a renewed debate over the best way to choose qualified judges (see Gavel Grab). One prominent  advocate for a switch from contested elections to an appointive-and-retention election system is the League of Women Voters of Ohio, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

“The League of Women Voters of Ohio has for years believed that the problem is that the kind of elections which work for politicians don’t work well for the judiciary,” LWV Ohio President Nancy Brown writes in a Cleveland Plain Dealer op-ed.

“Judges are different. Judges are not politicians in robes who promise to decide cases in a particular way who should be thrown out of office if they don’t keep their promises. Rather, judges are required to apply the law, regardless of their personal beliefs.” Read more

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Changes to Existing Judicial Selection Systems Ahead?

In several states that have recently held judicial elections or that will hold them next year, there is talk of changing the way judges are selected:

  • After controversy in Kansas over a state Supreme Court ruling that set aside death penalties for two brothers, state legislators may be ready to give the governor more control over appointments of high court justices, reported. Two justices who voted to vacate the death penalties faced an ouster drive but won retention on Election Day.
  • Some people are talking about the possibility of Cole County, Missouri switching from judicial elections for lower court judges to a merit-selection system after a national political organization pumped a six-figure sum into this month’s election, the Jefferson City News Tribune reported.
  • “Voters will have chance to remake Pa. high court” next year, the Associated Press reported. “Misconduct in PA’s highest court leads to calls for reform,” stated a headline for, sponsored by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner organization.
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Ballot Measure for Greater Judicial Selection Disclosure Passes

On Election Day, voters in Hawaii approved a constitutional amendment for greater disclosure in the judicial selection process. It will require Hawaii’s judicial selection commission to disclose the names of candidates recommended to the governor or chief justice (for District Court posts) for judgeships, according to a Gavel to Gavel report on ballot measures that passed.

In Alabama, voters passed a ballot measure to ban state courts from using foreign or international law, according to Gavel to Gavel. A Volokh Conspiracy blog post has a lengthy discussion of the measure. At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern opines, “Even Crazier in Alabama: Voters just passed a constitutional amendment that would overrule the Supreme Court.” Read more

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Editorial Decries Notion of ‘Justice for Sale, Inquire Within’

“It’s getting to the point that courthouses where elected justices work may as well start posting signs, ‘Justice for sale, inquire within.'”

JusticeForSaleThat’s the lament of a Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News editorial reflecting on a recent pornographic email scandal that swept up Justice Seamus McCaffery, leading to his suspension and then retirement, and also urging adoption of merit selection of top state judges.

“Judicial elections are getting more expensive and more partisan at the expense of [a judge’s] qualifications,” Suzanne Almeida of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which advocates for a switch to merit selection, told the editorial board. PMC is a Justice at Stake partner organization. Read more

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Groups Push Back Against Anti-Retention Effort in Kansas

supremeFirst, an effort was announced to deny retention to two Kansas Supreme Court justices over a ruling that voided death penalty sentences for two brothers in a quadruple killing (see Gavel Grab). Now a legislator’s spouse is seeking to deny retention to a Kansas trial judge over his ruling in a case involving marriage for same-sex couples.

Defenders of fair and impartial courts are pushing back. The Kansas Bar Association, Kansas Association for Justice, Kansas Association of Defense Counsel, Kansas Appleseed and the League of Women Voters of Kansas jointly issued the following statement:

“On Election Day, Kansas voters will fulfill a significant responsibility; we will vote in the retention elections for Supreme Court Justices. Unlike legislative races, these are not meant to be partisan political contests. Our democracy rests on a foundation of fair courts, free from political interference. Judges running for retention must be evaluated for their ability to impartially apply the law in all cases. We urge voters to seek out information, available from the 2014 Kansas Judicial Review Survey, on the qualifications of justices and judges running for retention this year, before casting their votes on November 4.”

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Justice McCaffery Resigns; More Calls for Merit Selection in PA

Justice McCaffery

Justice McCaffery

BULLETIN: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery has resigned, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Monday. “The Judicial Conduct Board agreed to halt an ethics investigation the Supreme Court had ordered into his conduct,” the newspaper said.

When does a very public scandal spur action toward reform? In Pennsylvania, a Justice at Stake partner organization advocating for a switch to the merit selection of judges says the time for action is now, given a fresh state Supreme Court scandal. It followed the criminal conviction of an ex-justice last year for public corruption in running for election to the court.


“The cycle of scandal in our court system must end. No more embarrassing headlines. No more distractions. It’s time to restore Pennsylvanians’ trust in our justice system,” Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Executive Director Lynn Marks and Program Director Suzanne Almeida write in a op-ed. They urge adoption by the legislature of a constitutional amendment for merit selection of appellate judges, to replace contested, partisan judicial elections.

Justice Seamus McCaffery was suspended by the court recently after an email scandal drew headlines and conflict among court members (see Gavel Grab). What some observers have called a “mess” on the court is continuing to draw extensive commentary and renewed calls for a shift to merit selection. Read more

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