Gavel Grab

Archive for April, 2011

FL Court Revamp Plan Up in the Air

In Florida’s Senate, the fate of a proposal to overhaul the state Supreme Court is up in the air.

While it was removed Friday from the Senate calendar — where it had been scheduled for a vote — at least one subsequent news report said key Republican Senate leaders had promised House Speaker Dean Cannon a Senate vote. It was delayed during the past week because 24 votes are needed for passage of the plan, and Republicans could not count that many yes votes, a Tallahassee Democrat article said.

The proposal would expand the high court from seven to 10 members, then split the court into two divisions, and make other changes. It has encountered a firestorm of criticism from opponents who say it would politicize the high court, amount to “court-packing” by Republicans and also amount to retaliation against a court that did not always see eye-to-eye with the legislature (see Gavel Grab for background). Florida’s governor is Republican.

According to Republican Sen. Paula Dockery, there are at least five and possibly as many as nine out of a total 28 Republican senators who do not support the House-passed plan.  The Senate is in the final days of its regularly scheduled session. Read more

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Attacks, Praise for MA Judicial Nominee

Judge Barbara A. Lenk would be the first openly gay judge on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts if she is confirmed.

She received both brickbats and bouquets at a confirmation hearing before the Governor’s Council. Judge Lenk “was both savaged as an immoral participant in a plan to convert children into homosexuals and lauded as a learned and compassionate lawyer and mother whose wisdom is sorely needed by Massachusetts,” according to a Boston Globe article.

The criticism focused on Judge Lenk’s sexual orientation met resistance from at least three members of the Governor’s Council, who said the issue would not sway them.

“THE NOMINATION of Judge Barbara A. Lenk to the Supreme Judicial Court should not be a referendum on gay marriage,” the Globe editorialized on Friday.

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner group, has urged creation of a hybrid system for choosing appellate Pennsylvania judges that would include both merit selection and voter involvement. An appointee’s first term would run only four years before the judge faces a retention election under the proposal, according to a Wilkes-Barre Times Leader article.
  • “For the first time since Barack Obama became president, spring at the Supreme Court is lacking the scent of change,” an Associated Press article, entitled: “Justices staying put.” Meanwhile professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School writes an article published by The New Republic and entitled, “The Case for Early Retirement: Why Justices Ginsburg and Breyer should retire immediately.”
  • A new edition of Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, recaps recent state legislation affecting the courts. The center is partner of Justice at Stake.
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Change to NC Judicial Selection Weighed

A proposal to change the way some judges are selected in North Carolina ran into skepticism during a Senate committee hearing.

Under the proposal, developed by the North Carolina Bar Association, a new judicial nomination panel would be set up if a constitutional amendment were approved by voters, according to an Associated Press article.

If a vacancy occurred on the Superior Court or appellate courts, the commission would recommend two nominees, and the governor would appoint one of them. In the next election, both the incumbent and the not-appointed candidate would run against each other. Eight years later, the winner would face a retention (up-or-down) election.

“It’s trying to eliminate the risk to the bench in having judges who are unqualified,” said Martin Brinkley, the Bar Association’s incoming president, a Charlotte Observer article reported. Read more

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Resistance in Senate for FL Court Overhaul

BULLETIN: The Florida Supreme Court overhaul proposal was pulled from the Senate calendar today after a vote had been scheduled, and  the measure’s fate was in peril, according to The Buzz blog, from the staff of the St. Petersburg Times.

A contentious proposal to overhaul Florida’s Supreme Court has met significant resistance in the Senate, which is in its final days of the regular session.

The plan introduced initially by Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon would expand the court from seven to 10 justices and split it into two divisions. It has widely been denounced as “court-packing,” as threatening judicial independence, and as based on political revenge against a high court that scratched off the ballot last year several initiatives that had been introduced legislatively.

Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla called it a “radical overhaul of the Supreme Court into this untested, unproven model,” according to a Miami Herald article.

Republican Sen. Paula Dockery did not see the need for overhaul. “There doesn’t appear to be any problem. The case load has been reduced and here we are meddling in the business of the Supreme Court when nobody from the court system has come and asked use to do that.” Read more

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AZ Voters to Decide on Revising Merit Selection

As a result of legislative action, Arizona voters will get to decide next year whether to change  the merit selection process in place for choosing judges for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and the trial courts in the two largest counties.

Arizona’s Senate this week  placed a referendum on judicial selection on next year’s ballot, according to an Associated Press article. The referendum will ask whether voters want to make changes that would reduce the State Bar of Arizona’s role in judicial selection and also the influence of judicial screening commissions. The House already had approved a similar measure.

If backers of the referendum prevail, a measure of influence would be shifted from the State Bar and commissions to the governor, who would get more options when it comes to picking judges for vacancies, a Capitol Media Services article reported.

Under current practice, screening commissions include five attorney members who are nominated by the State Bar, and 10 members who are not attorneys. If the referendum is approved, then the State Bar no longer would select the five attorney members; its president would pick one, and the governor would choose the other four.

Currently the screening panels must nominate at least three candidates to the governor for a vacant judgeship, and the governor must pick a judge from that list. If approved, the referendum would change this so the panels would be required to send the governor the names of all candidates who received backing of at least half of the commissioners, and the panels would have to send names of at least eight applicants for a vacancy. Read more

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Editorial: FL Court Overhaul Built on 'Revenge'

Critics of a proposed overhaul for Florida’s Supreme Court are refining and trying to hammer home their response in an effort to halt the House-passed measure in the state Senate.

One of the latest editorials denouncing the plan came from The Tampa Tribune, which assailed “hardball” tactics by Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon to help advance the measure out of a Senate committee (see Gavel Grab). It also mentioned a key role played by Sen. R.D. Alexander, the budget committee chairman:

“A power grab is common enough in politics, but this is head-turning because the reason is so obvious. Cannon, and Alexander for that matter, can say what they want about creating ‘efficiencies’ or trying to help the judges clear dockets. But this is obviously an assault on the court solely because lawmakers don’t like the justices’ decisions.”

The proposal would expand the high court from seven to 10 justices and split it into two divisions. It has widely been criticized as “court-packing” and a transparently political response to the high court’s scratching off the ballot last year several initiatives that had been introduced legislatively. Read more

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Challenge to Gay Judge Unlikely to Prevail

It is unlikely that a federal court will set aside a decision striking down California’s ban on same-sex marriages because the gay judge who issued the ruling didn’t recuse himself, a number of legal analysts are saying.

The  judge’s impartiality was questioned in a legal challenge by backers of the ban, called Proposition 8 (see Gavel Grab).

At least one of the legal analysts suggested that then-Judge Vaughn Walker might have acted more wisely by disclosing he was in a decade-long relationship with a male partner. (Walker has subsequently retired.)

“I think there is zero chance of the decision being overturned because of this purported conflict, but it might have been wiser for Judge Walker to make this disclosure before taking on the case,” said Jeffrey Toobin, CNN legal analyst, according to a CNN article. “I still think that is not necessarily disqualifying, because judges deal with issues that affect them in a broad sense all the time, but it might have been a better practice to put the cards on the table,” he said.

Retired Illinois state Judge Raymond McKoski said about the issue, “I don’t think this judge had any more duty to disclose his sexual orientation than a Christian or Jewish or Muslim judge has a duty to discuss their religion or a heterosexual judge has his duty to discuss their sexual orientation.” He was quoted in an Associated Press article that was headlined, “Experts: Judge’s sexual orientation is non-issue.” Read more

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High Court Overhaul Advances in FL Senate

A widely criticized proposal to overhaul Florida’s Supreme Court, already passed by the House, got new life in the Senate, where it was approved by a committee along party lines.

State Sen. J.D. Alexander, the budget committee chairman, sponsored a version of the House-passed overhaul as an amendment to a bill in his committee, and the panel approved it, according to a Palm Beach Post article.

Alexander and Senate President Mike Haridopolos “apparently signed off on the plan” to expand the court and split it into two divisions, “in a bid to jump-start stalled budget talks” with the House, the newspaper said. House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican, has pushed for the high court overhaul.

Florida Bar leaders and former jurists are among those who have criticized the plan as “court-packing” and threatening judicial independence (see Gavel Grab).

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • In Iowa, the public can view online the questionnaires completed by applicants for a vacant judgeship on the 1st District bench. It’s the first year the transparency policy has been in effect, according to a West Cedar Falls Courier article.
  • A panel of the Pennsylvania Bar Association will hold a hearing this week on whether a constitutional convention should be held to tackle issues facing the judiciary and legislature, including a proposal for merit selection of judges, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported.
  • Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox said he still supports election of justices, despite the increasing ugliness of Supreme Court campaigns since he stepped down, according to a Superior Telegram article.
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