Gavel Grab

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Time to Rethink Judicial Selection in Oregon: Editorial

Darvocet-Stack-of-Cash-GavelA recent plea (see Gavel Grab) by retired Oregon Supreme Court Justices William Riggs and Michael Gillette, for a switch from judicial elections to merit selection of judges, is making waves.

The ex-justices “are right to urge Oregonians to rethink how judges are selected,” said a Register-Guard editorial. “In states across the country, interest groups are spending tens of millions of dollars to sway the courts in their favor.”

“Americans are increasingly concerned about the influence of money and politics on the judiciary,” the editorial said.  “As Riggs and Gillette warn, ‘Now is the time to rethink how we select judges in Oregon — before we face a public confidence crisis.’”

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Nonpartisan Judicial Elections are Debated in West Virginia

West_Virginia_quarter,_reverse_side,_2005West Virginia’s House Judiciary Committee has heard debate for and against a proposal to switch from partisan to nonpartisan judicial elections (see Gavel Grab), according to the Charleston Daily Mail.

“I really believe the judiciary should be above partisan politics,” said Speaker Tim Armstead, a Republican. “It should be viewed as, and in reality be, the one branch where people feel like they can go regardless of their views, their opinions and their partisan beliefs and know they’re going to be treated fairly.”

Anthony Majestro, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice, took issue with the bill. “Party identification provides some information to voters on where a candidate may stand on particular issues that would be unavailable to voters otherwise,” he said.

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Merit Selection Called Cure for Campaign Ills

iStock_000015670171Small1Editorial pages in Illinois and Oregon are tackling the need for reform to keep cash and politics out of judicial selection, with calls for cleaning up the election process or eliminating it by switching to merit selection.

In Illinois, a piece on the website raised the alarm about high spending in the recent retention campaign of Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier.  “Illinois could remove the smudge of campaign money and attack ads from our courts by having an independent commission appoint all judges through a merit-based process — an idea that’s been around for a long time,” the piece suggests.  Failing that, the article suggests that if the state retains partisan elections for its justices it could move to public financing of campaigns as a “partial solution.”

Karmeier was originally elected in a partisan race in 2004.  He was retained for a second term in a costly 2014 campaign, in which interest groups spent heavily for and against him.

Meanwhile, an op-ed for The Oregonian by two former state Supreme Court justices urges a change to merit selection for Oregon.  Although Oregon’s nonpartisan judicial races have not suffered from heavy spending in recent years, the writers warn that record-smashing spending in 2014 judicial races around the country could come to the state in the future.  “Now is the time to rethink how we select judges in Oregon — before we face a public confidence crisis,” they write.  A number of state reform advocates are urging legislators to advance a proposed constitutional amendment in favor of merit selection.

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Petition to S.C. Supreme Court Asks to Halt Judicial Elections

Circuit Court Judge Edward Miller’s uncontested next term came across a surprising obstacle when a woman decided to file a petition asking the state Supreme Court to declare Miller unqualified for the post. Simultaneously, she is challenging the constitutionally of the commission that originally deemed Miller qualified.

South Carolina’s trial level courts are divided into 16 circuits, and Judge Miller has presided over the Fourth Circuit since 2002. About three years ago he issued a warrant for Brenda Bryant’s arrest for failing to pay just under $10,000 of attorney’s fees. Bryant, now living out of state, refuses to pay the fee because she claims the court-appointed lawyer failed to protect her mentally handicapped adult daughter from abuses. Now Bryant is petitioning to postpone his Feb. 4 legislative election, citing his actions in her case as an “abuse of power” that disqualifies him, The State reports.

Read more

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Chief Justice Nuss: Kansas’s Current Supreme Selection Process Works

Chief Justice Nuss

Chief Justice Nuss

In his State of the Judiciary, Kansas Chief Justice Lawton Nuss appealed to the legislators to move funds earmarked for upgrading court technology to cover the expected Judiciary budget shortfall of $2.5-3 million. An article by The Topeka Capital Journal reported that Nuss also took a stand against Governor Sam Brownback’s call to alter the process of selecting state Supreme Court justices after Wednesday’s speech.

Kansas Supreme Court justices are currently chosen by the governor, who picks from three qualified candidates chosen by a nonpartisan panel of lawyers and non-lawyers. Brownback proposed a different system last week: either direct election for Supreme Court Justices or the governor’s choice subject to Senate approval, eliminating the need for the panel. After the speech on Wednesday, Nuss told reporters that these options, which Brownback touts as being “more democratic” than the current system, work poorly in other states.

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Commentary: Minnesota’s Judicial Selection System is ‘Broken’

Minnesota’s current system for selecting judges is “broken” and its rare judicial elections are a “disaster waiting to happen, writes David Schultz, a Hamline University professor of political science, in a Minn Post commentary.

He says that although the state’s Constitution calls for an elected judiciary, roughly 90 percent of its judges are initially appointed by the governor. When judicial elections do occur, they are infrequently contested, result in scant information provided to voters and attract low voter turnout. And due to court decisions, judicial candidates are frequently dependent upon campaign money from lawyers who may appear before them. Moreover, the selection process results in little diversity of the judiciary.

“Minnesota needs a system that leads to the selection of the most qualified individuals to serve as judges, who also will render impartial justice, stand accountable for their decisions, and reflect the diverse demography and perspectives of its citizens,” Schultz writes. He is not enamored of a federal-style judicial nominating system with lifetime appointment, nor a merit-based appointive system that also includes retention (up-or-down) elections, and instead suggests that viable options may include “fixed judicial terms or limits on gubernatorial selection.”

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Editorial: End ‘Incestuous’ Judicial Selection Process in Virginia

blog_Mug_Capitol_Snow-600x480Virginia’s General Assembly ought to remove an “ethical minefield” and reform the state’s process for selecting judges, who now are chosen by the legislature, a Lynchburg (Va.) News & Advance editorial says.

With many key legislators serving as lawyers in their day jobs, “Essentially, you have the legal profession itself selecting the supposedly unbiased jurists before whom they will be practicing,” the editorial warns. “[T]he idea of lawyers selecting who will be the judges to hear their cases is rife with problems.”

“The only way to reform this incestuous process is to eliminate it: Create an independent judicial selection commission and remove politics and job considerations from the process entirely,” the editorial concludes.

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Bill on Switch to Partisan Court Elections Actually a ‘Poke’?

washington_flag_mapThere’s more pushback from the Washington state legislature over state Supreme Court rulings about the inadequacy of funding for public education.

A bill filed in the House by 19 representatives would shift the state from holding nonpartisan races for the Supreme Court to partisan races, and one of its sponsors labeled it more of a “poke” than substantive legislation, according to a Seattle Times blog.

The first section of the bill states, “The legislature finds that because the supreme court has decided to act like the legislature and has thus violated the separation of powers, the supreme court should be considered partisan like the legislature.” Read more

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Justice McCormack Calls MI Court ‘Collegial and High-Functioning’

bildeJustice Bridget Mary McCormack of the Michigan Supreme Court says that despite perceptions of an elected court riven by ideology, the bench is quite “collegial and high-functioning.”

Justice McCormack gave an interview to Michigan Radio. She  said the justices pay a price given a public perception that impartial decision-making is influenced by extensive undisclosed spending on judicial elections.

“I can tell you from my personal experience in the back room, it’s not how we work,” said Justice McCormack, who was elected in 2012. She also said partisanship does not drive the justices’ decision-making. Read more

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Editorial: Economic Reasons for Alabama to Switch to Merit

2003_AL_ProofAn economic analysis supportive of replacing partisan judicial elections with a merit selection system ought to “resonate” with Republican supermajorities in the Alabama legislature, a Montgomery Advertiser editorial says.

The analysis of John A. Dove of Troy University in Alabama was the subject of a recent Gavel Grab post. Dove asserts that Alabama’s legal system is overrun by politics, and it would help boost the economy and job creation to reduce politics in the courtroom by replacing partisan judicial elections with merit selection.

The editorial notes that that it is far from that newspaper’s first to call for consideration of merit selection, but philosophical arguments have not won over legislators. Perhaps an economic argument will have greater influence, it says: Read more

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