Archive for the 'Justice at Stake' Category
The U.S. Senate’s blocking at least temporarily the nomination of Debo Adegbile, a respected civil rights lawyer, to a top Justice Department post (see Gavel Grab) has big implications for defenders of fair and impartial courts, Justice at Stake’s Praveen Fernandes said in an interview available on YouTube.
Because some senators voiced opposition based on Adegbile’s having represented a defendant convicted of killing a police officer, such concerns could spill over to other lawyers and lead to their reticence to handle cases of accused criminals, said Fernandes, who is JAS director of federal affairs and diversity initiatives.
“To the extent that people, lawyers, are being penalized for their representation of criminal defendants, there’s a real concern in the fair courts community that this will lead to bright lawyers avoiding representing criminal defendants,” Fernandes said. Read more
A new recusal rule for Pennsylvania judges who hear cases involving campaign contributors (see Gavel Grab) will take effect in July, an Allentown Morning Call article reports. In providing context for the rule, the article cites Justice at Stake and two of its partner organizations.
According to a poll commissioned last year by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, almost 90 percent of voters think judges’ decisions are influenced to at least some extent by campaign donations, and more than 90 percent said judges should step aside when a party in a case before them has contributed directly or indirectly to a judge’s election campaign.
As Matthew Menendez of the Brennan Center put it, “Imagine that, God forbid, you get hit by a car and you’re badly hurt, and it turns out the driver is the biggest campaign contributor to the judge on that case.” He added, “Everyone should have confidence that they can receive a fair shake in court.” Read more
Former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor delivered some compelling statistics about the lack of diversity on the bench, nationally and locally, according to a blog submission in AZ Attorney.
“Diverse experiences can be used in appropriate circumstances to better understand the case at hand. “The presence of diverse voices,” Justice McGregor said, “broadens discussion and analysis,” McGregor told the audience at the kickoff event co-sponsored by Justice at Stake.
Justice at Stake (JAS) and Arizona Advocacy Network, along with numerous other partners, and former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, launched the Judicial Diversity Project in Arizona this week.
Two events were held in Tucson and Phoenix to kick off of a yearlong collaboration to promote diversity on the bench. The project aims to create diversity on the bench so that the courts reflect Arizona’s communities, and to ensure access to fair and impartial justice.
The death of public financing for judicial elections in North Carolina means more judges “are thrown out there with their tin cups” to appeal for campaign support from lawyers who appear before them, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a video interview.
Brandenburg was highlighting states that defenders of fair and impartial courts may want to watch as judicial elections unfold in upcoming months. In North Carolina, where the philosophical balance of the court will be at stake, “You could see interest groups pouring in big money,” he added. “This is their big chance — they are unlikely to pass it up.”
In Texas, Brandenburg said, some Democrats have been accused of trying to infiltrate a Republican primary for the state Supreme Court. “It shows how much more ‘politics as usual’ are spilling into races for courts,” he said. He also mentioned Illinois, where a retention (up-or-down) election bid by incumbent Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier could turn costly if Justice Karmeier chooses to run for another term.
To learn more about states where big spending and partisan politics in judicial elections could erode public confidence in fair courts, learn more from Gavel Grab by clicking here for North Carolina, here for Texas and here for Illinois.
A proposed U.S. Treasury Department rule to curb 501(c)(4) “social welfare” non-profit groups could have unique and unintended consequences for the courts, Justice at Stake said in submitting comments to the proposed rule.
The Obama administration is seeking to curb so-called “dark money” flowing from nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors, to political campaigns. The rules, among other things, would expand the definition of “candidates” to cover federal nominees, including judicial nominees, and by broadening the definition of “candidate-related political activity” to include such activities as nonpartisan voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote activities and distribution of nonpartisan voter guides.
“We applaud the IRS’s desire to stem the tide of dark money in politics, which is a serious problem,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake. “Our concern is that these proposed rule changes could create unintended consequences for courts. In fact, we think that in some ways, they could actually inadvertently exacerbate the problem the IRS is trying to solve.”
With some news media attention beginning to focus on a possible retention (up-or-down) election bid by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier this year, Justice at Stake was quoted about the historic and costly 2004 race in which he first was elected.
“The Karmeier race turned out to be a harbinger of a trend that unfortunately has spread across the nation,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told the Madison-St. Clair Record. The candidates raised $9.3 million, a national record at the time for a two-candidate race.
While retention elections typically have been less costly than contested elections, justices in some states have begun engaging in serious fundraising for retention elections. “I think the jury is still out on whether retention races will be overcome in the way (general) elections have been,” Brandenburg said.
Legal journalist Andrew Cohen offers a dismaying glimpse of legislation in Tennessee that would gut state Supreme Court control over administrative functions of the judiciary, and he cites Justice at Stake for expertise about the issue.
“There’s a reason no other state in the country has such a system,” Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director, told Cohen for an article in The Week, a news magazine. “It denies the courts the most basic of administrative functions and seeks to make our courts of law answer to politicians instead of the law.”
Cohen’s commentary is headlined, “Welcome to Tennessee, where lawmakers are trying to kneecap judges.” He calls the legislation, which would transfer the administrative functions of the judiciary to the comptroller of the treasury, a “big ball of scorn for the state’s judiciary.”
Cohen also writes that the measure would revise death penalty procedures, for example, so greatly that judges could not extend filing deadlines in capital cases; and it would require judges to meet their own deadlines for concluding capital cases even if they were not prepared to do so. Read more
Justice at Stake’s concerns about the risks of electing state judges were noted in a Cherry Hill Courier Post article about New Jersey’s process for gubernatorial appointment of judges, subject to state Senate confirmation.
In an elective system, “The judges have to raise money from people who have business before the courts,” said Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director. “The ultimate goal is to pressure judges to be accountable to politicians and special interests, rather than the law and the constitution.”
At the same time, New Jersey’s appointive system for picking judges mirrors aspects of the federal judicial selection model more than any other state, and like the federal process, it has been racked by political tension in recent years. Read more
On Tuesday’s fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United campaign finance ruling, JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said the decision had “poured gasoline on the already burning fire of judicial election spending, further eroding public confidence in our courts.”
“In the first full election cycle since Citizens United, independent spending by special interest groups in judicial races surged by more than 50 percent over the previous record,” he said in a statement. “The deluge of special interest and political campaign cash signals a race to the bottom in judicial elections, and they are becoming barely distinguishable from mudslinging political contests for executive or legislative offices.
“Given Citizens United and subsequent court rulings, we’re on our way to creating a Wild West for elections generally. In judicial elections, this trend is of paramount concern because a relatively modest amount of money can tip the scales of justice.”
Justice at Stake called the anniversary one to regret. Its statement advocated an array of reforms in the wake of Citizens United.