Archive for the 'Judicial Elections' Category
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, whose saga of being targeted by big special interest spending in a judicial election has captured widespread attention, was to address a Wisconsin audience on Monday. In the run-up to his speech, WUWM radio aired a report saying Wisconsin’s judicial elections are among the nation’s nastiest and citing Justice at Stake as its source.
The “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12″ report featured Wisconsin’s court elections as a case study, WUWM recounted, and the report “says the politicization and influence of outside money is undermining public confidence in the court.”
“When people have a perception that justice can be bought or sold, it undermines the whole system of our courts – our system of impartial justice,” former Justice Diaz says. His story has been told in a documentary and it inspired a novel by John Grisham.
The “New Politics” report was recently released by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
An Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) County Court of Common Pleas judge-elect is asking area attorneys to donate money so she can reduce or eliminate her campaign debt. To a court reform group, this practice doesn’t pass the smell test.
“I’m not blaming the treasurer or the judge-elect, but it does raise at least the question of the appearance of impropriety,” Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said of the controversy surrounding Judge-Elect Jennifer Satler. ”The real problem is that there can be this perception of favoritism after she’s elected if one side or the other has made a large contribution to the judge.”
Marks told WTAE-TV that the problem “isn’t with the candidates themselves. The real problem is the system.” PMC, a Justice at Stake partner organization, is supporting legislation for Pennsylvania to switch from partisan, contested judicial elections to a merit selection system for choosing appellate judges.
Satler’s campaign manager said the fundraising letter was unsuccessful.
An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times by legal journalist Andrew Cohen says judges in Alabama are overruling juries decisions and imposing the death penalty as a way to appease the electorate.
The piece titled Politics, not justice, in Alabama death penalty cases, cites the dissent of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor after the High Court declined to hear an Alabama case in which a jury voted 8 to 4 to give the defendant a life sentence for murder, only to see that result overturned by a judge.
“Alabama is one of only three states that give judges this override power in capital cases, and it is the only state in which judges regularly use that power to enhance sentences, said Cohen.
Cohen believes judicial elections are a major part of the problem.
“This is the strongest argument I have heard yet against judicial elections, the very existence of which undermine confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. Any judge who has to beg future litigants for votes, or who has to promise her constituents that she will employ a particular doctrine or ideology, is tainted. It’s bad enough that judicial elections taint civil justice in states such as Texas. That they taint life-or-death decisions in Alabama is simply deplorable.”
Regular readers of Gavel Grab are familiar with Iowa’s turbulent judicial retention (yes-or-no) elections in recent years. In 2010, three Iowa Supreme Court justices were ousted in retaliation for a controversial marriage ruling. In 2012, a similar ouster effort against a fourth justice was turned back, and the justice was retained.
For those less familiar with this history, the Talking Points Memo blog recaps much of it in fixing a spotlight on a more recent, related event: The Family Leader group posted last month an attack on Polk County District Judge Karen Romano, saying she apparently “has not learned a lesson” from” the 2010 election (see Gavel Grab). The Family Leader and some outside groups sought the justices’ removal then.
Judge Romano recently stirred controversy for some when she stayed a new Iowa Board of Medicine rule adopted to regulate medication abortions.
Talking Points Memo writer Andy Kopsa sees in Iowa — and other states — a growing threat to fair and impartial courts through retention election ouster efforts driven by special interests for political reasons: Read more
Concerns voiced by Randall Shepard, a former chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court, about big spending influencing judicial elections form a centerpiece of an Indiana Business Journal column by by John Krull examining the topic.
A lot of spending in the last cycle of state Supreme Court elections came from special interest groups pushing national issues, Krull writes, and Justice Shepard elaborated on his concern at a recent session held by Justice at Stake to release a report on spending in judicial elections.
“Money finds whatever crevice it can, and flows into groups which are less transparent and less accountable,” said Justice Shepard. He is a Justice at Stake board member.
Expressing his personal view on the issue, Justice Shepard went on to say that he believed it would be better if more power was returned to local parties and candidates as a result of placing limits on the clout Read more
A recent dissent by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor raises concerning questions about the impact of judicial elections on actual justice, writes Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, in a Huffington Post essay. It is entitled, “The Deadly Problem of Judicial Elections.”
Justice Sotomayor wrote that elected Alabama judges “appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures” in overruling juries to impose death sentences. She wrote the dissent when the high court declined to hear an appeal from Alabama death row inmate Mario Dion Woodward (Gavel Grab has background).
Fredrickson points to recent studies that go further when examining judicial elections. A Center for American Progress study said that as elections for state judges becoming increasingly partisan and costly, a concern about being slammed as “soft on crime” is leading judges to rule more often in favor of prosecutors, and against criminal defendants (see Gavel Grab). Separately, Read more
A national news media report about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s questioning the impartiality of elected Alabama judges also spotlighted public concerns as evidenced in a recent poll commissioned by Justice at Stake.
In a dissent (see Gavel Grab), Justice Sotomayor wrote that elected Alabama judges “appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures” in overruling juries to impose death sentences. NPR, in covering her dissent, cited the recent poll by JAS and the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner group:
“Sotomayor is not the only one who might harbor concerns about elected judges. Thirty-eight states elect their Supreme Court judges, and in a national poll released last month by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center, 70 percent of respondents felt that it was a very serious problem when elected judges have received a contribution from an ‘individual, attorney, business, or interest group’ presenting a case before them. In fact, 92 percent of respondents felt that judges should step aside in such cases.” Read more
Elected Alabama judges “appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures” in overruling juries to impose death sentences in capital cases, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent this week.
The nation’s highest court declined to hear the appeal of an Alabama death-row inmate convicted of killing a police officer, according to the Washington Post. Justice Sotomayor dissented, and she was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer.
In 27 instances since 2000, judges have imposed death sentences after juries recommended life in prison, she wrote in her opinion. All but one of the cases came from Alabama, and in that case, the trial court’s ruling was changed to life in prison with no parole by the Delaware Supreme Court.
“There is no evidence that criminal activity is more heinous in Alabama than in other states, or that Alabama juries are particularly lenient in weighing aggravating and mitigating circumstances,” she wrote.
“The only answer that is supported by empirical evidence is one that, in my view, casts a cloud of illegitimacy over the criminal justice system: Alabama judges, who are elected in partisan proceedings, appear to have succumbed to electoral pressures.” Read more
Pennsylvania’s use of partisan elections to pick judges has come under criticism from another newspaper editorial board, this time the Elizabethtown Advocate. Its editorial cites “mudslinging” in a recent Superior Court election as evidence of need for a change.
The editorial cast a spotlight on a negative ad aired by the Republican campaign of Vic Stabile in the contest with Democratic candidate Judge Jack McVay Jr. The ad, which brought up allegations of nepotism in hiring, was criticized by the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
The editorial elaborated:
“This is only the latest example of why we should not have people running for judicial seats the same way they run for governor or mayor. It would make far more sense to emulate what other states Read more
Two Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices spent an estimated $317,500 on TV advertisements to help retain their seats when voters went to the polls this week, according to estimates released by the Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake on Friday.
The spending came in what are generally considered low-key judicial races, where Chief Justice Ron Castille (left of two photos) and Justice Max Baer (right of two photos) successfully ran for another term in retention (up-or-down) elections, the groups said in a statement.
Chief Justice Castille spent an estimated $66,000 while Justice Baer spent an estimated $251,000. Before Election Day, the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC issued a press release urging Pennsylvanians to vote against retaining both justices, as a result of their not upholding the state’s Voter ID Law in a 2012 ruling. Pennsylvania group Rock the Capital also campaigned against Chief Justice Castille.
The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.