Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Merit Selection' Category

New Report Examines Judicial Nominating Commissions in U.S.

logo_squareThe Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) and its Quality Judges Initiative have released a new report on the judicial nominating commissions used to select supreme court justices in 30 states.

The report is entitled Choosing Judges: Judicial Nominating Commissions and the Selection of Supreme Court Justices. The report states in its conclusion: Read more

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In Arkansas, a Call to Weigh Shift to Merit Selection

justice-scalesIs a new debate ahead in Arkansas over the best way to select impartial judges?

The issue has been percolating lately (see Gavel Grab), and now Roy Ockert, editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun, has written a op-ed urging consideration of a shift from nonpartisan elections to the “Missouri Plan” of merit selection.

In Arkansas, Ockert writes, “we the people are still electing our judges, but the process is becoming corrupted.” He says the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the door for special interest groups to raise large sums and then target and sometimes smear judicial candidates, who are limited by ethics restrictions in their ability to respond. Read more

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Tennessee Justice Campaigns for Merit Selection Amendment

Newly-appointed Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeff Bivins is campaigning for a Tennessee ballot initiative that would maintain the merit selection of appellate judges, The Republic reports.

The current system, in which the Governor appoints judges from a panel approved by a Judicial Nominating Commission, has been criticized for not providing for enough public input. However, some critics contend that this provision is unconstitutional under the Tennessee State Constitution, which says that justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.” Judges currently face periodic up-or-down retention elections.

The amendment that Justice Bivins is campaigning for would preserve the current system but also enable the input of the state legislature on issues concerning judicial appointments.

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Letter Argues for Merit Selection System in PA

justice-scalesA Letter to the Editor of Triblive by Lynn A. Marks and Suzanne Almeida published yesterday argues that Pennsylvania’s system of judicial elections ought to be replaced with a system involving merit selection.

The letter’s authors, who are involved with Justice at Stake’s partner organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, write, “The requirement in the revised Code of Judicial Conduct that judges disqualify themselves from hearing cases involving large donors makes good sense. But it can’t address the underlying problems with selecting judges through expensive, partisan elections. An overhaul of the way we choose our statewide judges is needed.”

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Arkansas Attorney General: Electing Judges is a Mistake

arkansas_flag_web_fc1aArkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said this week that he believes electing state judges is a mistake and that Arkansas should consider shifting to a method like Missouri’s, combining an appointive process and retention (up-or-down) elections when judges seek a new term.

The Associated Press reported McDaniel’s remarks in an article that was headlined, “Couples ask justices to recuse in marriage case.” Some couples challenging an Arkansas ban on marriage of same-sex couples have requested that any Arkansas Supreme Court justices who intend to run for re-election step aside from hearing an appeal in matter. The plaintiffs say legislators have employed “intimidation tactics” to influence the outcome of an appeal before the high court.

In June, the Arkansas Legislative Council approved a resolution declaring that state Judge Chris Piazza had “overstepped his judicial authority” and that urged the state Supreme Court to reverse his ruling (see Gavel Grab). Judge Piazza had struck down a state ban on marriage for same-sex couples. Read more

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Editorial Praises Open Process for Vetting Kansas Court Applicants

KansasAs Gov. Sam Brownback prepares to make his first pick for the Kansas Supreme Court, there is media commentary comparing the open selection process with a more secretive process for selecting Court of Appeals judges.

An editorial in the Lawrence Journal-World commends the first open-to-the-public interviews of state Supreme Court applicants, to be held soon by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission.

“Public interviews, along with public votes on whether to retain justices on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, offer Kansans good opportunities to observe, evaluate and, if needed, reject judges who don’t measure up,” the editorial states. “The transparent process for interviewing applicants for the Supreme Court further supports the merit selection of judges over the closed, more political system now in place for the Court of Appeals.” Read more

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O’Connor Enjoys a ‘Bully Pulpit’ Advocating Judicial Selection Reform


Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s advocacy, to replace state judicial elections with an appointive system using bipartisan screening commissions, continues to grab newspaper headlines.

The N.Y. Daily News reported, “Sandra Day O’Connor decries letting ‘cash in the court’ with judicial elections: The retired U.S. Supreme Court justice is lending her voice to the Quality Judges Initiative, which advocates for the use of nominating commissions to replace elections for judges.”

The article said, “Sandra Day O’Connor may have left the bench but she still has a bully pulpit.”

You can read more from Gavel Grab about Justice O’Connor’s recently released Judicial Selection Plan, developed in conjunction with the Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. Justice O’Connor also serves as Justice at Stake’s Honorary Chair.

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New Group Urges ‘No’ Vote on Judicial Selection Amendment

TennesseeA group announced in Tennessee on Tuesday it will work to defeat  a proposed constitutional amendment to help preserve an appointive process for selecting appellate state judges.

Supporters of the effort urging citizens to vote “No” on Amendment 2 argued that the proposal tramples on a requirement in the constitution to elect appellate judges, The Tennessean reported. However, a version of the state’s current merit selection system has withstood court challenges. The current system includes a judicial screening panel and gubernatorial appointment of judges combined with retention (up-or-down) elections when a judge seeks a new term. Read more

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Barron’s Essay: ‘Give Judges Gavels; Take Away Their Tin Cups’

Sales-Tax-money-gavel“The Price of Justice” has become threatening in state judicial elections, Skip Kaltenheuser writes in a Barron’s commentary bearing that title and citing data from Justice at Stake. He urges, “Give judges gavels; take away their tin cups.”

The Barron’s piece offers a thumbnail factual history of the soaring costs of judicial elections and the increasing role of special interests, mixed with strong opinion.  The Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision “threatens the integrity of state courts,” Kaltenheuser writes, drawing on “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12.

The report was co-authored by JAS and two partner organizations. Not only did independent spending on judicial elections rise sharply in that election cycle over the pre-Citizens United record; “Television ads backing candidates for high courts took a huge leap—over a quarter funded by special interests, much of it attack ads involving hot button issues and wild distortions of controversial rulings,” the commentary notes. Read more

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The Tennessean: ‘Can Justice be Tainted by Money?’

gavel_cash-300x202In November, Tennessee voters will weigh a proposed constitutional amendment to help preserve an appointive process for selecting appellate Tennessee judges. On Sunday, a leading state newspaper, The Tennessean, said it will look in upcoming weeks at states with judicial elections and states with appointment systems, to answer the question: “Can justice be tainted by money?”

When lawyers donate to judicial campaigns and then appear later before the judge, it can cause a problem, the Tennessean article noted in spotlighting one of the most common issues associated with electing judges.

“People who spend that kind of money tend to want something for the effort,” politics and government editor Scott Stroud wrote. He pointed to a recent example in Davidson County.  There is controversy about a judge’s deciding in an assault case to provide early release for a defendant whose attorney, Bryan Lewis, was good friends with the judge and had donated to his campaign. The defendant allegedly attacked his victim a second time soon afterward. Read more

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