Gavel Grab

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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.

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“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 Philly.com 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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Commentary: Suspended Judge a 'Poster Boy' for Reform

“When are we going to reform the stupid way we choose these people?” That’s the question Allentown Morning Call columnist Bill White asks after an email scandal led to the suspension of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice.

White labels recently suspended Justice Seamus McCaffery (see Gavel Grab) “the judicial system’s Prince of Porn” and he also notes the conviction on public corruption charges in 2013 of an ex-justice, Joan Orie Melvin. White urges a shift to a merit selection system for choosing judges, saying that “with merit selection, we at least can ensure that the men and women we’re choosing are qualified and unbought.”

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which has worked to advance merit selection legislation, told White, “Judges should be selected based on their record of personal integrity and temperament and qualifications, not on whether they’re good campaigners, good fundraisers or have a good ballot position.” White’s column is headlined, “McCaffery is new poster boy for merit selection.” Read more

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In Pennsylvania, Renewed Calls for Shift to Merit Selection

supreme_seal_colorAfter the Pennsylvania Supreme Court suspended Justice Seamus McCaffery amid allegations of sending pornographic emails (see Gavel Grab), the entire episode has sparked extensive media commentary including calls for reform.

“Isn’t it time we stopped electing appellate and Supreme Court judges?” said a Pottstown Mercury editorial with the headline, “Shameful actions of justices stain state Supreme Court.” It continued, “It would be better to follow the federal example and come up with a merit selection process that has reasonable checks and balances.” It said both gubernatorial candidates back merit selection.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner organization advocating for merit selection, told a CBS affiliate, “We’ve received many calls in the past week asking for change.” She added, “Judges should be selected based on their personal integrity and legal qualifications. What you want is a fair and impartial judge, not somebody who got there because they campaigned their way in or because they were a good fundraiser.” Read more

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'Arms Race' for Judicial Election Spending in Michigan: JAS

gavel_cash_20121102165220_320_240Michigan is shaping up as a major battleground for three contested seats on its state Supreme Court. Spending on TV advertising airtime has climbed to $1.2 million, as the state GOP began airing an ad promoting its nominees, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice reported.

The sums spent on TV advertising so far are the highest for any state supreme court election, the groups said in a joint statement on Friday. Judicial candidates have spent nearly $990,000, and the state GOP TV ad campaign has cost an estimated $244,720.

“It’s troubling that spending in Michigan’s Supreme Court race is again on track to reach astronomical proportions,” said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “Michigan has become a national symbol of an arms race that is putting pressure on judges to answer to political pressure instead of the law and the constitution.” Read more

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Editorial: Judicial Selection Reform Loses Strong Proponent

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The American Judicature Society closed its doors a year after celebrating its 100th birthday. The disbandment of the organization is bad news “for those who support efforts to reform the judicial selection process,” says an editorial in The Des Moines Register.

Since the group’s founding in 1913, “much has been done” to implement judicial selection reform; however, much still needs to be done, the editorial asserts. Presently, 28 states elect trial judges and 21 states elect judges to their highest appellate courts (usually called the supreme court.)

“Political partisanship of the nation exhibited in Washington has spilled over into the courts,” the editorial laments. Citing Justice at Stake, the editorial reports that more than $150 million has been spent on judicial campaigns in the last three election cycles, and the money only continues to increase. Read more

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Partner Group Works to Inform Voters About Judge's Role

national-association-of-women-judgesThe National Association of Women Judges, a Justice at Stake partner organization, is working to inform voters in Florida about the role of a judge in the state court system. The group’s efforts were the topic of a recent WLRN report. 

“It’s not about the individual judges and whether they continue in their career. It’s about what kind of courts do we as citizens in this democracy want,” said Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Washington, D.C.

“The public should be informed about the reasons we have a third, separate branch of government. A branch that is to be above politics and above special interests,” says Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Pariente,  co-chair of the Florida Informed Voters Project.

On Election Day, Florida voters will decide whether to retain 22 District Court of Appeal judges.

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American Judicature Society to Dissolve; JAS Voices Sadness

The American Judicature Society has announced that after 101 years of work to protect the integrity of the American justice system, it will close its doors. Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg made the following statement on Tuesday:

“A century ago, AJS helped light the fuse for decades of reform and progress designed to make our democracy better by keeping our courts strong, fair and independent.  We salute all of the AJS staff, directors, and faithful supporters who have worked so hard over the years to make our society better.  We are very sad to see the organization close, but its legacy will inspire all of us who work to keep courts fair and free of political influence.   In a democracy, public vigilance is essential to maintaining fair and impartial courts: Justice at Stake pledges to redouble its efforts to educate and advocate for this critical pillar of our democracy.”  Read more

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LWV of Florida Will Oppose Constitutional Amendment

The League of Women Voters of Florida has announced its opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow an outgoing governor to make certain prospective appointments of judges.

votersThe organization announced its opposition in a conference call this week, according to the Orlando Weekly blog, and retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Anstead, a participant in the call, labeled the proposal “the latest in continuing efforts to politicize the third branch of government.”

At its own website, the League of Women Voters of Florida states about the proposal, “the League cannot support an amendment that could be used to undermine the independence of the judiciary; that is why we do not support Amendment 3.” Voters will weigh the ballot measure in November. Read more

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