Gavel Grab

Archive for September, 2008

links for 2008-09-30

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Alabama Op-Ed Decries Role of PACs

In an op-ed in the Anniston Star in Alabama, Robert Leslie Palmer discusses the history of corporate interests in Alabama Supreme Court elections, starting with Karl Rove in the early 1990s. The op-ed also cited the Justice at Stake Campaign’s 2006 New Politics Report when discussing the amount that has been spent in Alabama elections since 1993, about $54 million.

A recent Gavel Grab posting pointed out the influence of political action commmittees and corporations on Judge Greg Shaw’s campaign, whose contributions are mostly from business-related PACs. Palmer goes even further, pointing out the person who has contributed the most to Shaw’s campaign:

More disturbing, however, is the degree to which Shaw’s contributions come from political action committees. In contrast to Paseur’s campaign contributions, less than 11 percent of which come from PACs, a whopping 95 percent of Shaw’s campaign contributions come from PACs. And if that is not enough to make you ill, a full 62 percent of Shaw’s contributions come from PACs run by one person, Thomas Dart, a lobbyist for the Automobile Dealers Association of Alabama. Every time you watch a commercial or read an ad for Shaw, remember that the pitch is being made by car dealers.

For further updates on the Alabama race, read Gavel Grab, and Justice at Stake’s “This Week in Judicial Politics.”

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Ohio Judge Condemns Cash in Court Races

An Ohio Supreme Court candidate has denounced the influence of cash in the judicial election process, according to a Toledo Blade article.  Judge Joseph Russo described the perception among Ohio voters that justice is for sale due to contributions made during judicial campaigns.

“I’m not sure which is worse,” Russo said. “If you’re voting with your people because you’re influenced by the money, that’s horrible obviously. But if you have people out there who perceive that they can buy a vote on the court, that to me is just as bad. You have to take all this out of the equation.”

Russo submitted a proposal to the Ohio Judicial Conference that would require judges to recuse themselves from cases involving campaign donors.  The proposal did not make the final draft submitted to justices for approval.

This is not the first time Russo has faced a multi-million dollar election.  “We are absolutely determined to make sure we don’t become a state like Illinois with an $8 million race,” Russo said.  “The last time with my opponent (in 2002), she raised $1.8 million. [The business-backed] Citizens for a Strong Ohio put in $2.2 million, so that made it a $4 million race. It’s not an anomaly. These races have grown and grown.”

A 2002 League of Women Voters study found that 83 percent of Ohio voters believed that cash influences judicial rulings.

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links for 2008-09-27

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Special Interests Have Stayed Off Air

Special interest groups so far haven’t aired independent ads in the fall state Supreme Court races, according to “Buying Time 2008,” the Brennan Center for Justice‘s weekly television advertising report. By the same time in 2006, the report said, outside groups had spent $1 million on ads in the Alabama state Supreme Court race.

The finding contrasts sharply with the spring Supreme Court campaigns, when special interests outspent the candidates by four to one in a bitter Wisconsin election.

Largely because of the Wisconsin campaign, total spending on television advertising is surpassing amounts at this time in 2006. Already, candidates and interest groups have spent a total of almost $5.9 million on television advertising nationwide, compared to only $4.5 million spent by candidates, interest groups, and political parties by the third week of September in 2006.

“There is a direct correlation between special interest groups remaining on the sidelines, and the notable civility of the ongoing campaigns. It would be surprising if that continued, but the development is a positive one thus far,” said James Sample, counsel at the Brennan Center.

According to the report, candidate spending on TV ads picked up the week starting September 13, especially in Louisiana, where a state Supreme Court election is set for October 4.

The ads were paid for by the campaigns, and not by outside groups. More information on the ads is available through the Brennan Center for Justice’s website,

Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake, said:

“As the election draws closer, this year’s court campaigns are approaching their moment of truth: Is interest group money waiting around the corner, ready to pour in? This year’s topsy-turvy national politics, and a variety of in-state political developments, makes interest group activity harder to predict.”

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Judges Who Ruled on DeLay Case Got Gifts From PAC's Donors

Three appellate judges who ruled on a case involving Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee organized by Tom DeLay, have accepted significant campaign contributions from donors who helped fund the same PAC, according to a news release from Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group. 

According to the group’s report:

The three GOP judges who went out of their way to rule for Tom DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority PAC (TRMPAC) last month took 10 percent of the money for their most recent campaigns from donors who also financed TRMPAC. Twenty crossover donors gave $637,150 to TRMPAC and $119,825 to the TRMPAC justices.

Justice Alan Waldrop, who wrote the TRMPAC ruling, arguably owes his office to TRMPAC donors. With TRMPAC donors supplying 14 percent of his 2006 war chest, Waldrop won with just 51 percent of the vote. Justice Bob Pemberton won elections in 2004 and 2006 with less than 52 percent of the vote. TRMPAC donors supplied six percent of the money that he raised for those two campaigns.

Chief Justice Ken Law—who faces Democrat Woodie Jones in November—reported raising $106,122 through June 2008. TRMPAC donors supplied a striking 26 percent of Chief Law’s campaign “funds” to date.

The court ruled that Texas’s money-laundering law, on which DeLay and the PAC were charged, did not apply to checks.

In a related story, Ronnie Earle, the controversial prosecutor who obtained an indictment on money-laundering charges against DeLay, raised the specter of judicial misconduct by the appellate panel, according to a Texarkana Gazette report. The indictment, which prompted the former House majority leader to resign from Congress, was later dismissed.

Earle was quoted as saying:

“The dark shadow of corruption of our system of justice looms over this case,” Earle wrote in a brief. “Every lawyer has a duty to raise questions of corruption that go to the heart of our judicial system, and it is in the discharge of that duty that the State pursues this effort.”

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Missouri Candidate Wants to Change Judicial Selection Method

Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate, Congressman Kenny Hulshof, has announced that while he continues to favor merit selection for state judges (as Gavel Grab previously noted), he’d like to see some changes in the process.

Currently, a panel made up of three lawyers elected by the Missouri State Bar, three citizens appointed by the governor, and the local presiding appellate judge submits a slate of three names to the governor for selection.  

According to an Associated Press article, Congressman Hulshof called for numerous changes, including: 

  • Replacing the lawyers with randomly selected state judges.
  • Replacing the current presiding judge with a randomly selected former state Supreme Court Justice.
  • Sending the governor five nominees for the bench instead of three, and allowing the governor to choose his or her own nominee after rejecting two slates submitted by a review commission.

Hulshof’s comments also are discussed in the Kansas City Star’s Prime Buzz column.

In his remarks, Congressman Hulshof complained that “the nonpartisan plan has become partisan,” tilting toward Democratic jurists favored by plaintiff’s lawyers, but in the Kansas City Star’s Prime Buzz column,  former Republican governor John Ashcroft’s chief of staff flatly disagreed.

Congressman Hulshof’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jay Nixon, wants to retain the current selection procedure. Any change would require a constitutional amendment, and an attempt by Republican lawmakers to scrap the system failed in the last legislative session.  

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More Diversity Urged in South Carolina Courts

South Carolina’s judicial selection process is not producing enough diversity on the bench, speakers told a gathering last week, according to a report in the Columbia Free Times, which said:

At the forum, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal defended the state’s judiciary but acknowledged that it lacks needed diversity. “Diversity in the judicial system remains even today a dream that is not fully realized,” she said.

Toal said that every year she has served as chief justice she has asked the General Assembly to develop a new methodology to diversify the judiciary.

Panelist Barbara George Barton, a practicing attorney and former president of the South Carolina Women Lawyers Association, offered a blunt assessment of the system. “It’s dominated by white men,” Barton said.

Numbers tell the story, Barton says. The state’s population is 51 percent female and about 29 percent black. Of the five judges on the Supreme Court, one is female and one is African-American. Of the nine judges on the Court of Appeals, three are women and one is black. Of the 46 Circuit Court judges, six are female and five are black.

Columbia attorney I.S. Leevy Johnson, an African-American and former state legislator, said most blacks don’t even try to seek a judgeship. “Why waste your time when you know the Legislature is not sensitive to diversity,” Johnson said. In South Carolina, judges are “anointed instead of elected,” he added.

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Column Discusses Louisiana Court

With an election for two Louisiana Supreme Court justices taking place Oct. 4, a wide-ranging column by John McGinnis discusses the evolution of that court, and different ways to approach the special interest money that has helped shape it.

 But the column also sharply criticizes ethics charges by challenger Jeff Hughes against incumbent Catherine “Kitty” Kimball, who would become Louisiana’s first female chief justice if reelected.

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LA Judge Spent $360,000 on Election

A newly elected Superior Court judge in Los Angeles spent $360,000 in his campaign to win the seat, according to a news report.

The sum was the most ever spent in a California local court election that didn’t go to a runoff, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise reported. James Bianco, who had been appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, easily defeated Los Angeles attorney Bill Johnson in the June 3 voe.

The report also said judicial elections this year were marked by unusual largesse from the Los Angeles litigation firm of Girardi and Keese and members of their families, which gave a total of $61,000 in the final reporting period to Bianco and other candidates for the bench.

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