Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Justice at Stake' Category

Fair Courts, Free Speech to be Weighed in Upcoming Case

justice-scalesThe Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments in January in a case that could result in making races for judgeships “even more like contests for other elected offices,” Governing magazine reports, while citing the concerns of Justice at Stake.

In Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the court will be asked to decide the constitutionality of state bans on judicial candidates personally soliciting campaign contributions (see Gavel Grab for background).

JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told Governing that prohibitions on judicial candidates personally soliciting campaign cash are among the only protections of the integrity of these contests that remain today. Read more

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JAS: Spending ‘Brawl’ Ahead in Pennsylvania Court Election?

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdA high spending free-for-all could erupt when three Pennsylvania Supreme Court seats will be up for election in 2015, and national interest groups may target the off-year contest, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports while quoting Justice at Stake.

“What we’re seeing in state after state across the country is TV spending records smashed year after year,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told the newspaper. “Pennsylvania is no stranger to big-money spending in judicial elections. You already have a culture there for big spending; it’s hard to imagine that this won’t be a spending brawl. … The wild card is, will out-of-state interests jump in?”

The 2015 contests will determine the partisan composition of the court in a year when an unprecedented number of seats will come before voters at once. Read more

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JAS in USA Today: Political Impeachment Threats ‘Pervert Justice’

What’s the outcome when politicians and others call for the impeachment of judges over controversial rulings? It “can only pervert justice,” Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, writes in a USA Today op-ed.

JAS-LogoBrandenburg’s column cites recent impeachment calls over court decisions to delay executions, to scuttle state bans on marriage for same-sex couples, and even for the impeachment of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. if he votes in a current case to gut the Affordable Care Act (see Gavel Grab). The impeachment calls come from both the right and the left.

“These attacks haven’t resulted in actual proceedings. Nor should they,” he writes. “The Constitution gives judges life terms, presuming good behavior. Impeachment of judges was not designed as a tool to settle political disagreements. If courts can’t make hard calls without a threat of political retaliation from the other two branches, they won’t be able to protect our fundamental rights, especially when doing so is unpopular.”

He concludes, “Courts deal with important issues, so controversy comes with the black robes. But the use of political impeachment threats over decisions can only pervert justice. This kind of bullying has no place in our political culture.”

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Commentary Cites JAS, Urges ‘Divorce’ of Judiciary and Politics

justice-scalesBig spending by outside groups and the funneling of dark money into some judicial elections this year continue to draw analysts’ attention and spark pleas for removing politics and cash from the courtroom. One of the latest to advocate reform, Christopher Moraff in an Al Jazeera America commentary, cites Justice at Stake.

His piece is headlined, “Justice on the take: Dark money is seeping into US courtrooms and threatening judicial independence.” It quotes JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg as saying, “As more national players seek to bully and buy the courts, our constitutional right to a fair day in court is in jeopardy.”

Moraff discusses the setting of spending records in some state judicial elections and the opinions of editorial boards and other analysts on the need for reform. Moraff states in conclusion: Read more

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L.A. Times: Big, Outside Money Changing Judicial Campaigns

law-cash-21816475A “new wave of campaign spending driven by outside political groups and unlimited donations” is changing the way once-sedate judicial campaigns now are conducted, according to a front-page Los Angeles Times article that quotes Justice at Stake.

The newspaper spotlighted not only the setting of spending records in several states’ judicial elections in 2014, as Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice reported in a recent analysis, but also TV ad spending that reached nearly $14 million overall, up about $2 million from 2010.

The article highlighted nasty attack ads in some states and the largely unsuccessful efforts of a national group, the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent $4 million to sway judicial races.

Discussing the importance of insulation for judges from the swings of public opinion was Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director. “We expect judges to do things differently,” he said. “The more we ask judges to take off the black robes and put on politicians’ three-piece suits, the greater the risk those politicians will intrude in courtrooms.” Read more

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The New Yorker Looks at Alabama ‘Double Jeopardy’, Cites JAS

alabamaIn the New Yorker, a lengthy article examines the case of Shonelle Jackson, convicted of committing capital murder at age 18 and condemned to death by an elected judge who overrode a jury’s vote for a life sentence. The article looks at judges’ tough-on-crime campaign statements and high spending in Alabama judicial elections and quotes spending data from a 10-year report co-authored by Justice at Stake.

The article by Paige Williams is headlined, “Double Jeopardy: In Alabama, a judge can override a jury that spares a murderer from the death penalty.” If Jackson’s death sentence is implemented, it states, “he will be the first person to be executed despite a jury’s unanimous vote for life.”

In January, JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg had an op-ed in USA Today urging judicial selection reform and citing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in a different death sentence by override case from Alabama (see Gavel Grab). “Her fear,” he wrote of Justice Sotomayor, “is that the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and a fair trial could be threatened by campaign pressure on judges who must stand for election.” Read more

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JAS: Without Reforms, Impartial Justice ‘In Danger of Collapse’

The 2014 GOP “wave” elections brought big changes for executive and legislative offices but “stopped at the courthouse door,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg writes in a post-election analysis distributed by McClatchy Newspapers.

JAS-LogoThe same voters “chose to keep their elected judges from both parties. Americans want courts to be insulated from politics. Interest groups and partisans have other plans — and they’ll be back,” Brandenburg adds. His analysis looks at judicial elections, higher TV ad spending than four years ago and state ballot measures. Brandenburg concludes with a warning:

“Our state courts are under political siege. Our judges are trapped, pressured to raise money and appeal to interest groups on the campaign trail, and then rule on their supporters’ cases in court. Too many interest groups see the third branch of government as a tool to bend to their will. And too many politicians who know better are enabling them.

“The Constitution promises impartial justice. Our nation’s founders built a political culture that erects walls around the courts to keep them free from political pressure. But 21st century politics is tearing down these walls. This year’s wave didn’t flood the courts. But unless we raise new barriers against the growing tide of politics and big money, the very foundation of our judiciary — impartial justice — is in danger of collapse.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a version of the op-ed that ran in other papers, the phrase “dark money” was used incorrectly. We regret and have corrected the error.

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JAS on N.C. Judicial Elections: ‘Clock Has Been Turned Back’

NORTH-CAROLINA-FLAG-300x224Record overall spending of $5.2 million in the recent elections for four seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court is making waves, with some advocates calling for reform and with Justice at Stake lamenting the elimination of public financing of judicial campaigns.

A High Point (N.C.) Enterprise article quoted JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg as saying, “For years, public financing of judicial elections meant that North Carolina judges could talk to voters, not donors who appear before them in courts.” He added, “Now the clock has been turned back to the days when judges had to raise money like politicians.”

“We’ve just witnessed the most expensive judicial elections in North Carolina’s history and the first in a decade without judicial public financing,” said Melissa Price Kromm, director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections. “Something has to change. We must protect our fair and impartial courts.” Read more

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JAS: Newly Victorious Judges Know ‘They Could Be Next’

With nearly $14 million spent on TV advertising in state judicial elections this year, there were results for impartial courts that go beyond the Election Day outcomes, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told National Law Journal.

JAS-Logo“On the one hand, none of the judges who faced severe attempts to oust them this year lost their jobs,” Brandenburg said. “On the other hand, every one of those judges knows they could be next.” The TV spending sum topped the $12.2 million  spent by outside groups, political parties and candidates for TV ads in the 2010 midterm.

The National Law Journal article recapped high points of a post-election analysis compiled by JAS and a partner organization, the Brennan Center for Justice.

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Commentary: Election Day Votes a ‘Triumph for Justice’

In the 2014 judicial elections, voters resisted a flood of political spending because of a belief that “judges are not politicians,” Mark Joseph Stern wrote in a Slate commentary that was headlined, “An Unexpected Triumph for Justice.” Stern relied on a political spending analysis by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Mentioning TV ad spending of almost $14 million in this year’s judicial elections, Stern concluded that “judges are not politicians, and Americans don’t seem too eager to treat them like political animals. It’s fine to vote out a politician for a vote you don’t like, but voting out a judge for a decision you disagree with clashes with the most basic principles of judicial independence. At the end of the day, most Americans understand that a judgeship should not go to the highest bidder or the biggest spender.” Read more

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