Archive for July, 2009
A surprise decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to rehear a case involving a scorching documentary about Hillary Rodham Clinton could overturn long-standing restrictions on campaign spending by corporations.
The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, could have vast implications for state elections as well as federal contests. A New York Times editorial said opening the spigots on corporate spending in elections would be a “disaster for democracy.”
In its June order that set a rare rehearing for Sept. 9, the Supreme Court said that ”it will consider whether to uphold a ban on corporate spending in federal elections,” the Washington Post reported. If the ban were relaxed or struck down, similar state laws–including those governing elections for judges–likely would come under fierce challenge.
Most states impose some limits on corporate giving to political candidates, including state Supreme Court races, and some impose an outright ban. A guide to relevant state laws is available from the American Judicature Society.
A deadline is approaching for filing of amicus briefs in the case, and advocates for fair courts are watching closely. By moving toward a review of important precedents, “the Supreme Court is signaling its willingness to re-examine more than one hundred years of law that supported limiting the expenditures of corporations in elections,” the Brennan Center for Justice said.
Both sides in the battle over the Citizens United case were asked by the high court, according to a New York Times article, “for their views on whether it should overrule a 1990 decision, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, and part of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, the 2003 decision that upheld the central provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.” Read more
A lawyer who has challenged numerous judicial election laws now is taking on Alaska’s process for appointing judges, in an unusual constitutional challenge to the widely used system known as merit selection.
The National Law Journal reported that James Bopp Jr. filed the lawsuit July 2 in Alaska federal court, naming the seven members of the Alaska Judicial Council. When judicial vacancies arise, the council nominates a slate of candidates to the Alaska governor, who makes the final choice.
The lawsuit contends that the Council violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to National Law Journal. You can read the complaint here.
The National Law Journal quoted Bopp, a proponent of the election of judges, as saying, “The problem with this is, in a nutshell, that the right to vote, which all citizens of Alaska have, is being discriminated against.” The executive director of the Alaska Judicial Council had no immediate comment about the lawsuit’s premise. Read more
Judge Sonia Sotomayor was asked some 583 questions during the course of four days’ of hearings on Capitol Hill. What new insights did the country gain about the woman who appears likely to become the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice?
One theme to emerge from wall-to-wall news media coverage of the hearing last week is that Judge Sotomayor gave few clues about her legal philosophy.
In its story, “A mechanic in a black robe,” the Los Angeles Times reported that Sotomayor depicted herself as a judge who would ” stick to precedent and never ‘make law.’ But in doing so she revealed almost nothing about the philosophy that would guide her on the high court.”
Was Sotomayor carefully following a calculated political strategy, the article asked, or was she mirroring the views of a lower-court judge who had not shaped broader legal views? The answer remained unclear.
In a New York Times article, Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe, an adviser to President Obama, used just one word–”nothing”– to say what the country had learned about Judge Sotomayor’s legal views. In fact, the week may have been notable for how little the nation learned about her, according to the Times.
With a deliberate delivery, Judge Sotomayor discussed precedents while declining to take a stand on legal questions that are unsettled, and she insisted she had to keep her mind open about potential future cases.
Despite the shortage of revelations about her legal philosophy, the hearing provided extensive fodder for political commentary. Read more
Sonia Sotomayor has faced lively but generally respectful questioning during her Supreme Court nomination hearings this week. The discussion has highlighted a number of topics that can help educate the public about the way our legal system works, as well as debates over how it should function. A few of these relate directly to Justice at Stake’s mission.
The vital role of an impartial judiciary in our democracy has received significant attention during the hearing. Though much of the discussion draws from Republican skepticism about Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy, all sides seem to agree on what a judge needs to do to remain impartial. Sotomayor has repeatedly affirmed that political opinions and personal sympathies do not affect her legal opinions. She applies the law to the facts of the case. Senator Sessions supported her view that a judge must constantly examine her personal feelings about a case to ensure a fair decision.
The subject of diversity on the bench has come up repeatedly in the hearing due to the historic nature of Sotomayor’s nomination. Many Senators have expressed pride that a Latina may finally gain a spot on the Supreme Court.
Reaction to Sotomayor’s view of her heritage appears to be a mixed bag. Overwhelmingly, the committee seems to support the idea that our federal judges should reflect the profound diversity of American society. But Senators have grilled the nominee about her widely quoted comment that a “wise Latina woman” somehow might interpret the law more ably than a white man. Sotomayor has felt the need to disown the remark, calling it a “rhetorical flourish that fell flat.” Read more
This morning the Senate Judiciary Committee commenced with direct questions for Judge Sotomayor. Senator Sessions’ inquiries spawned an important discussion about impartiality and the judiciary. He explicitly doubted Sotomayor’s commitment to fairly deciding cases in light of her oft-quoted speeches about how her own experience affects her judicial decisions.
Sotomayor admitted that her “wise Latina” comment was an attempt to put a “rhetorical flourish” on a Sandra Day O’Connor quote that “fell flat.” She tried to put the quote in context. saying she was trying at an event to inspire young Latino students to set high goals, and to articulate how a judge’s personal experience fits into her line of work.
She defended the assertion that experience effects what facts a judge might see, adding that for this reason they must carefully examine their own feelings about a case to make sure they do not unfairly favor one litigant over another. Both Senator Sessions and Judge Sotomayor agreed this approach is key to maintaining an impartial judiciary, though he questioned her adherence to the principle.
Stay tuned here at Gavel Grab and on twitter for more updates throughout the day.