Gavel Grab

Archive for October, 2009

New Detainee Commissions Are Criticized

By signing into law a major defense authorization bill this week, President Obama put his personal stamp of endorsement on another US government effort to hold military-commission trials of some terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay.

An article by the Christian Science Monitor News Service delves into the  details of how the commissions are to work, how the new law was written to provide more legal rights to detainees, and the complaints of critics who say  it  still falls short of complying with the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.

Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, was among those saying the U.S. federal courts system is well equipped for trials of terror suspects:

“Although they are an improvement from the 2006 version, the reformed commissions still fail to provide critical safeguards for the accused that are available in our traditional criminal justice system…This lesser degree of process is not justice.”

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Watchdog Disappointed by Wisc. Recusal Decision

The Wisconsin Supreme Court, by rejecting public calls for state judges to step aside in cases involving their  donors and supporters, virtually invited well-heeled individuals and groups to engage in a campaign contribution free for all.

That was the analysis of a prominent Wisconsin attorney following the state Supreme Court decision this week. The Wisconsin Law Journal quoted Thomas J. Basting Sr., chair of the Wisconsin Judicial Campaign Integrity Committee, as saying:

“What happened is the court invited big money contributions and third party advocates to spend as much money as they can in judicial elections.”

That way a judge has an “out” to avoid stepping aside in a case involving a significant donor, Basting explained. And it will be tougher in the future for some litigants to feel they are getting impartial treatment from a court, contended Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who supported tougher recusal rules.

One of the justices who voted with the majority against the recusal proposals, Michael Gableman, suggested that candidates receive donations from supporters who find them well-qualified for the post. “I don’t think there is any weird motive or agenda for judges if they get $1,000 or $10,000,” he said.

But Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson responded, “if someone contributes $500,000, [he or she is] going to expect something in return.” Read more

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Pa. Race: 'Good Case for Appointment'

It seems that disappointment in this year’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court race has become a recurring theme for some media analysts and commentators.

Democratic Judge Jack Panella and Republican Judge Joan Orie Melvin are battling in a race that voters will decide next week. Judicial campaign contributions have become a hot issue. Now the Scranton Times Tribune has weighed in with an editorial, “Good case for appointment,” that not only echoes other voices of  frustration but examines some problems inherent in appellate judicial elections:

“They are funded primarily by people who are likely to appear in court before the winning candidate, or who have frequent business before the appellate courts. That’s why the races frequently are funded by interests with ties to corporations and unions.” Read more

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Arizona's McGregor on Keys to Merit Selection Success

Former Arizona Chief Justice Ruth McGregor has highlighted four key components that help a merit system  work well. This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform commended Arizona’s merit selection process for picking judges as the nation’s best, and McGregor concurred.

According to an article by Legal Newsline, McGregor said a merit system must “do all it can to assure appointment of qualified persons and only qualified persons.” In addition, it must be structured “to assure the public that judges will be held accountable to act fair and impartial.”

Moreover, retention elections are necessary so voters can have an opportunity to unseat judges who don’t comply with proper standards, she said, and transparency is key when candidates apply and are appointed.

Regarding transparency, the commissions that submit a list of at least three candidates to the governor for appointment do so after holding  two public meetings. The  Web site of the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance Review encourages citizens to participate in merit selection and retention.

In its report, ILR released a “best practices” guide for nominating and appointing judges in merit selection states. “The quality of justice in our state courts is of critical importance to the entire business community,” the report began. The Guide draws heavily on the Arizona system. To learn more about the ILR action, click here for an earlier Gavel Grab post.

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Assassinated Italian Jurist is Honored

Renowned Mafia fighter Giovanni Falcone, a judge who was assassinated in 1992, was honored at the Supreme Court in an event that drew several U.S. justices and senior administration officials.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. remarked that Falcone had “died in a very real struggle to protect the innocent and stop violence,” according to a post about the event in The Blog of Legal Times. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. mourned the international community’s loss of “a very great man” and went on to assail the media, saying it uses the Mafia to “slander Italian-Americans.”  Also participating was Justice Antonin Scalia, who met Falcone in 1986. “He was obviously a marked man, and he knew it,” Scalia recounted.

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Obama Signs New Military Commission Rules

Congress has rewritten the rules for military commissions trying some terror suspects, and President Obama signed them into law Wednesday. His action effectively revives military trials at Guantanamo Bay.

The new rules for military commissions provide detainees stronger legal rights, the Associated Press reported, and take the place of a system the Bush administration launched at Guantanamo.

But some civil rights and constitutional law advocates said the changes did not go far enough to guarantee rights of the terror suspects. These advocates would prefer to see detainees face trial in federal courts, where they would be allowed more legal rights.

Read more

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Column: Pa. Election and the 'Rule of Flaw'

Gavel Grab’s clever headline-of-the-week award goes to the Philadelphia Daily News for this one above John Baer’s political column:  “Judicial campaigning under the rule of flaw.”

If news dispatches from the campaign trail for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have you grinding your teeth, try a dose of the columnist’s satire. In skewering the campaign tactics of both candidates, Democratic Judge Jack Panella and Republican Judge Joan Orie Melvin, Baer even manages to inject a quip by Groucho Marx.

His conclusion is  serious, however. Baer notes that Judge Panella has been on the bench for 18 years, Judge Orie Melvin for 24 years, and he states:

“So when you see judicial campaigns driven by special-interest-funded ads that stretch credulity, or hear Orie Melvin insist, ‘I’m no insider’ (which is like Bret Favre saying he’s a rookie since he’s on a new team), ask yourself if there just might be a better way to pick the people who sit on our highest court.”

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National Impact from Wisc. Recusal Votes?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s adoption of rules permitting judges to consider cases involving their campaign donors took the side of business interests and could have national impact.

The potential widespread importance stems from the fact Wisconsin was one of the first states to weigh new  rules for judicial recusal since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in Caperton v. Massey, according to an article by the Associated Press.

In June, the nation’s highest court ruled in Caperton that a West Virginia justice could not hear a case involving a coal executive who had spent $3 million to help elect him.

A Wisconsin dissenter, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley (photo on left), contended yesterday’s vote confirmed the status quo. “We are just passing the very law that already exists,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted her as saying. “It seems to me what I’m hearing is if we say it’s OK again that’s going to take care of the problem, and it’s not going to take care of the problem.”

Justice Michael Gableman (photo on right), who voted with the majority, said change was needed because it “memorializes the First Amendment Rights of the people to express their political views.” He has recently been asked to step aside in several criminal cases because of statements he made about crime issues during his 2008 campaign.

Wisconsin’s court turned down proposals to require judges to step aside from a case if they got big campaign donations from parties involved, or their lawyers, that exceeded a threshold, such as $1,000 or $10,000. The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin made the first proposal, and former Justice William Bablitch the second. Read more

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Wisc. Justices Question Recusal Proposal

A proposal requiring disqualification of a judge if he took $1,000 or more in campaign money from lawyers or parties in a case drew skepticism from several Wisconsin Supreme Court justices  today.

The high court’s agenda for its administrative hearing centered on proposals dealing with recusal rules for judges who received campaign donations from a party or lawyer before the court.

Justice Michael Gableman was outspoken in voicing doubts about the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin proposal, which would require recusal when a judge accepted $1,000 or more from people involved in a case,  according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.   He has recently been asked to step aside in several criminal cases because of statements he made about crime issues during his 2008 campaign.

Justice Gableman contended the proposal “starts with a presumption that judges are going to be tainted by 1,000 and willing to throw a case for 1,000.” He also asked whether the group got money from liberal philanthropist George Soros.

Read more

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Specter Backs 'Marriage Act' Repeal

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a former Republican turned Democrat, has switched from longtime support for the Defense of Marriage Act to calling for its repeal.

The 1996 law defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Specter wrote a commentary that was published in the Huffington Post:

“Connecticut, Iowa, and Massachusetts have already passed laws recognizing same sex marriage and other states are moving that direction. The states are the proper forum to address this divisive social and moral issue, not the Federal Government with a law that attempts to set one national standard for marriage.”

He also spoke on the Senate floor and issued a bulletin on Twitter, according to The Caucus blog of the New York Times. Specter is facing a primary fight for the Democratic nomination against Rep. Joe Sestak, and Sestak supports repeal of the law, the Times reported.

You can read more about debate over repealing the Defense of Marriage Act by clicking here for other Gavel Grab posts.

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