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Kansas Newspaper: JAS Urges Against More Politics in Picking Judges

As Kansas debates proposed changes to the way state Supreme Court justices are chosen, Justice at Stake said it would be a mistake to adopt a more political selection process, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

JAS-LogoInstead of using the existing merit selection method for choosing Kansas justices, Gov. Sam Brownback recently voiced support for holding contested elections or allowing direct appointment by the governor, subject to Senate approval (see Gavel Grab).

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the Kansas Supreme Court said switching to an appointment system with similarities to the federal model is not necessarily a good idea, given the politics that plays out in Washington, D.C. over judicial nominations. And he said direct elections pose the biggest dangers: “You have justices, or judicial candidates, going around the state asking for money,” Chief Justice Nuss said. “They spend a lot of time campaigning for that office.” Read more

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Kansas Supreme Court Under Political Attack Again

Critic say Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is injecting politics into the Kansas judicial branch with criticism of the quality of the state Supreme Court judges.

According to, Kobach is calling for a change to the merit selection system of choosing state Supreme Court justices – this time making claims that Kansas federal judges are better qualified because they go through a Senate confirmation process.

That assertion is simply not true say fair court advocates.

“Secretary of State Kobach is once again meddling with the judicial branch and trying to bring politics into our courts. Our current system was put in place in 1956 following a political scandal involving appointments to the high court by the then-governor in what became known as the ‘Triple-Play.’ Our current selection system has proven to be the best way to ensure quality judges are on the bench and the threats of politicization are minimized,” Ryan Wright, Executive Director of Kansans for Fair Courts, told Gavel Grab.

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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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‘Citizens United’ at 5: Protests, Stevens’s Criticism, JAS Cited

citizens-unitedA flurry of events around the fifth anniversary of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission included protestors disrupting the Supreme Court’s session and retired Justice John Paul Stevens, at 94, publicly voicing his continuing dissent.

“There is a greater public feeling that money is more important than votes, which I think is quite wrong,” Justice Stevens said at a Florida event, according to The Gainesville Sun.  In Washington, about half a dozen demonstrators rose individually during a session of the high court to yell such statements as  “Money is not speech” and “One person, one vote,” the Washington Post reported.

Justice at Stake said on Wednesday that the 2010 ruling has cast a long shadow over elected state courts (see Gavel Grab). A report quoted JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg as saying earlier:

“Judicial elections have become a playground for big money and hardball politics … Citizens United poured gasoline on this fire, and in turn, unleashed record amounts of spending by outside groups … Our judges are trapped in a crucible. They are in a system they did not sign up for. They are raising millions from people who have business before the courts.”

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JAS Judicial Election Data Cited as Context for Supreme Court Case

washington-supreme-court-building-washington-d-c-dc169As more news media reported on a judicial elections case argued Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court, Bloomberg offered context by citing Justice at Stake data about soaring judicial election spending in recent years.

“Spending on state judicial elections has soared in recent years, topping $56 million in the 2011-12 election cycle, according to a study by three groups, including Justice at Stake, a Washington organization that works to protect the courts from political pressure,” Bloomberg said.

As Gavel Grab mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court appeared divided over a bid by Lanell Williams-Yulee of Florida, a former judicial candidate, to strike down as unconstitutional Florida’s ethics rule barring judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign money. Read more

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JAS: Citizens United Casts a Long Shadow Over State Courts

JAS-LogoThe Supreme Court’s landmark campaign finance decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission continues to cast a shadow over elected state courts, Justice at Stake said on Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the ruling. Here is the statement of JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg:

“Five years ago, the Supreme Court in Citizens United permitted unlimited outside spending on elections. Many Americans understand the impact of Citizens United on executive and legislative branch politics, but its impact on state judiciaries is enormous and often overlooked.

“Judges in 39 states face elections, and 85 percent of all state judges are elected. With state courts a forum for ruling on many of the most contentious issues in our nation, whether health care law, abortion rights, marriage equality or environmental degradation, elected judges are being subjected to torrents of campaign spending by partisan interests who want to influence these decisions that have a major impact on our lives. Read more

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JAS: President is On the Money in State of the Union Speech

rtr_barack_obama_sotu_jc_150120_16x9_992Justice at Stake commended President Obama’s remarks, in the State of the Union speech on Tuesday, about the growing problem of  “dark money” in American politics.

“A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, asking them to join in the great mission of building America,” Obama said.

“As the president noted, dark money is infecting our political system,”JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a statement.  “It’s part of a wave of special interest spending overtaking our elections  – and the sad truth is that special interests are spending millions of dollars on state judicial elections, too, where dark money has also entered the picture.  This spending is pressuring judges to be accountable to politics, and raising fears that justice is for sale.  Every state that elects judges needs to take steps to insulate its judges from political pressure.” Read more

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Discussion: Money Obstructing Democracy in Wake of Citizens United

Bert podium

Bert Brandenburg

Every branch of government in every state has seen consequences in the five years since the Citizens United decision was handed down. 

Eight organizations presented research at today’s event – Five Years After Citizens United: What are the Costs for Democracy? Bert Brandenburg, Executive Director of Justice at Stake, explained that courts are being forced to bend to political pressure, turning them into “politicians in black robes.” He also noted that the upcoming Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar case will be an important hallmark, as the Supreme Court must decide if judges are permitted to directly solicit donations to finance their campaigns.

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JAS at D.C. Forum: Democracy Reform ‘Is a Three-Branch Issue’

(From left to right), Greg Moore, Bert Brandenburg, Caroline Fredrickson, Jo-Ann Wallace, Courtney Hight, Kristine Kippins

“Democracy and Our State Courts: Fighting Back After Citizens United

At a time of surging interest group spending to elect state judges, and with state courts issuing rulings that touch nearly every American’s life, it’s more important than ever to keep our courts fair and impartial.

That was the central theme to emerge from a forum of advocates and legal experts convened by Justice at Stake, the American Constitution Society, and the Brennan Center for Justice in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. Occurring shortly before the 5th anniversary of the the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, it was entitled, “Democracy and Our State Courts: Fighting Back After Citizens United.”

Advocates and experts zeroed in on the vast impact of state courts issuing rulings on everything from voting laws to the environment to reproductive rights to death penalty cases, and they emphasized both the heightened threats to impartial courts when interest group spending rises, and a public perception that elected courts may be up for sale to the highest bidder. Read more

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JAS Discusses Repercussions of Willams-Yulee Supreme Court Case

Ed - Scott Yulee event

Ed Whelan, left and Scott Greytak, right at Williams-Yulee panel discussion.

The Williams-Yulee v. the Florida Bar case that the Supreme Court will hear on January 20th is another test of money versus speech.

Aljazeera America reports that the case offers a window into concerns about whether elected judges feel beholden to donors, whose cases then often go before their courts.

JAS Policy Counsel and Research Analyst Scott Greytak said that the health of the judiciary relies on public confidence and that the public is increasingly skeptical of the impartiality of courts. Personal solicitation bans, he argued, are helpful in at least partly restoring that trust.

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