Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Recusal' Category

JAS: ‘Strong System’ Needed to Identify Judicial Conflicts of Interest

It  is over the top for the federal court system to regularly have two dozen cases where judges have violated conflict of interest rules and acknowledged it, after the fact, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said.

jas_logoBrandenburg was commenting on findings of the Center for Public Integrity, issued earlier this week. The Center documented (see Gavel Grab) that in 26 cases since 2010, federal appellate judges issued rulings despite having a conflict of interest because they owned stock in a company in a case before them (24 judges) or had financial ties to a law firm in the case (two judges).

David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, blamed human error for the mistakes, saying they were a tiny portion of 109,000 cases decided overall by federal appeals courts during the period that was studied. The judges take their ethical duties seriously, he said.

Brandenburg of JAS said, “There has to be a strong system in place to identify those conflicts in advance so the judges can step aside,” according to the Center’s report. “If that was a failure here, then there needs to be a strong look taken at the system.”

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Editorial: When Judicial Recusal is a Matter of Integrity

Gavel_and_moneyIf litigation involving two Wisconsin groups that are part of an ongoing campaign finance investigation reaches the state Supreme Court, justices who received campaign contributions from the groups ought to recuse themselves, an Appleton Post-Crescent editorial says.

Since 2007, the editorial explains, Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce have donated $7.3 million to help elect four justices who make up the court’s conservative majority.

Wisconsin justices are not required by virtue of having received campaign donations to step aside from hearing cases involving the donors. In urging recusal, the editorial cites the large amount of campaign support extended to the justices, the role of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce in writing the court’s existing recusal rule, and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2009 about runaway spending in judicial elections. Read more

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Debate: Should Scalia Recuse in ‘Buffer Zone’ Case?

Justice-Antonin-ScaliaThe newest debate about whether a Supreme Court justice should recuse from involvement in a case focuses on Justice Antonin Scalia. There are divergent opinions as to whether he should recuse from voting in a case challenging a Massachusetts law providing a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

Justice Scalia’s wife, Maureen Scalia, has worked previously and “may still be working” for a crisis pregnancy organization with a direct interest in the case about buffer zones, which protect abortion clinic workers and patients, states Amanda Marcotte in a Slate blog. Her post is headlined, “Justice Scalia Should Recuse Himself From the Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Case.”

A Salon essay by Lauren Rankin is entitled, “Scalia’s recusal dilemma: Is he conflicted on antiabortion ‘sidewalk counselors’?” It gives differing points of view on the topic, including that of law professor James Sample. He does not call on the justice to recuse but says “that he — and we — would be well served by an explanation of his decision not to recuse (or to recuse) similar to the way in which he explained his thinking vis-à-vis his contacts with Vice President Cheney” in the context of a case some years ago. Read more

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Four N.M. Justices Step Aside From Hearing Pay-Raise Case

NMJudiciaryAll but one of the five justices of the New Mexico Supreme Court have recused themselves from hearing a lawsuit that challenges Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of a budget provision to provide judges an 8 percent raise.

The judge who did not recuse, Justice Richard Bosson, was named acting Chief Justice to preside over the case, and he will pick pro tem judges to hear it, according to an Albuquerque Journal article.

The lawsuit contends that the legislature, not the governor, has the right to set judicial salaries. New Mexico’s trial judges are the lowest-paid in the nation. For background about the lawsuit, see Gavel Grab.



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N.M. Lawsuit Over Judicial Pay Veto Raises Questions

Numerous questions are raised by a newly filed lawsuit  against New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, challenging her veto of a budget provision to provide judges an 8 percent raise, according to news media accounts.

The lawsuit was filed by individual judges, two state senators, and groups representing state judges. It contends that the legislature, not the governor, has the right to set judicial salaries, according to a New Mexico Watchdog report.

That publication quotes Enrique Knell, a spokesman for the Martinez administration, as saying New Mexico Chief Justice Petra Jimenez Maes lobbied the governor’s office to advocate for the judicial raises. Read more

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Arkansas Case Raises Issues of Judicial Race Funding and Corruption

Gavel_and_moneyThe Arkansas Supreme Court, saying “the orderly administration of justice has been severely compromised, due, in part, to recusal issues” in a judicial circuit, reassigned the cases of a judge who is under investigation for campaign contributions he received earlier. The case is raising questions about corporate campaign spending and impartial justice.

The Arkansas high court also said it had been advised that court operations in the circuit had been disrupted, according to the Associated Press. Reassigned were cases on the docket of Circuit Judge Mike Maggio of Faulkner County.

Gavel Grab recently mentioned media reports that Judge Maggio was under investigation for a possible ethics breach in comments he made to a Louisiana State University fan website, and also in connection with campaign contributions made when he was a Court of Appeals candidate. He has withdrawn from that race.

The AP article said the contributions came from “political action committees linked to the owner of Greenbrier Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Days after receiving the money in July, Maggio reduced a judgment against the nursing home in the death of a resident from $5.2 million to $1 million.” Read more

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IL Judge, Mulling Retention Bid, Dogged by Controversial Case

A lawsuit under way in Illinois contends that State Farm, the insurance company, funded a multimillion-dollar campaign a decade ago to elect a state Supreme Court justice. A publication that has followed the lawsuit says the justice, Lloyd Karmeier, will decide soon whether to seek retention this year, and the litigation reflects how “one of his most controversial cases just won’t stay dead.”

The Madison-St. Clair Record has an article about the lawsuit, Hale v. State Farm, that is headlined, “Lack of clear rules for recusal underpins high stakes case against State Farm.” Last summer, the Center for American Progress issued a lengthy report about the litigation and the underlying issues, entitled “Dodging a Billion-Dollar Verdict.”

As Gavel Grab mentioned in a 2011 article about a related legal proceeding, then-circuit Judge Karmeier  defeated Appellate Judge Gordon Maag in the 2004 Illinois election, when $9.3 million was raised in the most expensive state judicial campaign in U.S. history. Justice Karmeier later refused to recuse himself from hearing an appeal in a class-action lawsuit, Avery v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co., despite questions raised that campaign backing from State Farm could taint his impartiality. Justice Karmeier voted in the majority to overturn a $1 billion award against the insurer. Read more

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JAS Cited in Article on New Judicial Recusal Rule in Pennsylvania

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

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Bill Would Rewrite Recusal Rules for Alabama Judges

justice-scalesAlabama has a law requiring judges to recuse themselves if their campaign got a least $2,000 from a party to a case. But the law has not been enforced due to a disagreement between the Alabama Attorney General’s Office and the Alabama Supreme Court, and in 2011, a federal court threw out a lawsuit that could have settled the issue (see Gavel Grab).

Now legislation has been proposed to repeal the existing law and replace it with a new one, according to Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts. The bill has these provisions, which are quoted from it:

  • Requiring a judge to step aside from hearing a case if, “as a result of a substantial campaign contribution or electioneering communication” by a party in the past election, “[a] reasonable person would perceive that the judge or justice’s ability to carry out his or her judicial responsibilities with impartiality is impaired.” Read more
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Conflict of Interest to Face Several Wisconsin Justices?

630px-Seal_of_WisconsinA potential conflict of interest may be ahead in a proceeding before several Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, yet they have no obligation under existing law to recuse themselves, Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress writes in a ThinkProgress blog.

Corriher writes: “A criminal probe in Wisconsin targets several major spenders on state supreme court races. Yet the justices who benefited from that spending will likely get to decide whether this probe moves forward.” The secretive investigation focuses on GOP candidates in 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin recall elections and interest groups that backed them with spending.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth and Citizens for a Strong America are among targets of the investigation, according to the blog post. In 2011, they spent more than $1 million in support of incumbent Justice David Prosser who was seeking reelection, the post said, based on data from the Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center is a JAS partner organization.

A Forbes blog post picked up on the ThinkProgress report and declared in its headline about judicial elections, “The Second Worst Idea in American Politics.”

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