Gavel Grab

Archive for September, 2011

The Economist: Judiciary the 'Feeblest Branch'

In response to state court budgets across the nation being slashed, The Economist reports increased delays and backlogs of cases, compromising enforcement and justice.

The article cited data released by the American Bar Association:

“In the last three years, most states have cut court funding by around 10-15%. In the past two years, 26 have stopped filling judicial vacancies, 34 have stopped replacing clerks, 31 have frozen or cut the salaries of judges or staff, 16 have furloughed clerical staff, and nine have furloughed judges. Courts in 14 states have reduced their opening hours, and are closed on some work days.”

The National Center for State Courts added that 3200 court buildings are “physically eroded” and “functionally deficient.” The ABA and the NCSC are both partners of Justice at Stake.

Paradoxically, cutting court funds can cost the government and the states substantial amounts of money. The Washington Economics Group states that backlogs in Florida civil courts cost the state $9.8 billion, compared to just $1.2 billion allocated to Florida courts. The U.S. Senate’s lack of efficiency in filling empty judgeships has only added to the problem. Read more

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Party Pressures Philadelphia Judges for Donations

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the city’s Democratic Party hosted a breakfast this week at which 27 area judges were asked to donate $10,000 each or lose party support in upcoming judicial retention elections.

According to the article, Philadelphia judges have been asked in recent years to contribute increasing amounts to the party organization. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (photo), who was present at the luncheon but left the room before the financial ask, denied knowledge of the allegations:

“I don’t know what was said at the meeting, because I wasn’t there. But I told [Family Court President Judge] Kevin Dougherty and the other judges, whatever they can do in terms of fund-raising is fine. The Democratic Party, for the 25 years I’ve been there, has never endorsed or unendorsed anybody for monetary reasons. . . . A good-faith effort, that’s what the party asks.”

Others described a more aggressive appeal. One of the attendees is reported to have likened the situation to the film Godfather II. The chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, Rudolph Garcia, expressed outrage at the alleged pay-to-play, pointing out that the cost of judicial retention elections were nowhere near the demanded $10,000 per judge.

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U.S. Aid to Iowa Anti-Gay Group: the Questions Continue

Mysteries and questions continue to surround an Iowa group that campaigned to defeat three state high court justices last fall while receiving a $2.2 million, multi-year federal grant to operate a marriage counseling program.

According to an article by the American Independent online news service, the Iowa Family Policy Center opted to return the last $550,000 of the grant in August 2010, as it was beginning efforts to oust three justices who had joined in a decision permitting same-sex marriage. But the conservative group never completed its paperwork to terminate the grant, or to account for its last year of how it spent the federal money,  the Independent said.

As reported last fall, conservative groups spent $990,000 in a successful bid to unseat Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices Michael Streit and David Baker in a retention election. According to the Independent article, the grant helped pay for staff and office space that were used in the “Vote No” campaign.

IFPC officials have declined to comment. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union Iowa is investigating the matter, but said their requests for further information on the paperwork have not been answered by a Department of Health and Human Services agency that is processing the grant. Another group, OneIowa, which favors same-sex marriage, is demanding that the entire $2.2 million be repaid to the federal government.

To learn more, see this earlier Gavel Grab post, or see Iowa state news at www.justiceatstake.org.

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Editorial: Arrogant 'Taj Mahal' Judge Deserves no Leniency

The St. Petersburg Times editorial board is calling for Florida’s so-called ‘Taj Mahal’ judge to be removed from the bench, saying he has left a stain on the integrity of the judiciary.

Florida 1st District Court of Appeals Judge Paul Hawkes faces a series of ethics charges brought against him by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC). The charges relate to Hawkes’ involvement in the building of a nearly $50 million courthouse in Tallahassee that has been dubbed the ‘Taj Mahal’.

The editorial chides Hawkes for his hubris in pushing for such a costly courthouse at a time when courthouses across Florida are having to tighten their belts and lay off staff. It strongly urges the JQC to show no leniency towards Hawkes, stating:

It would be a violation of public trust if Hawkes were able to keep his job through a negotiated settlement. Secret negotiations to avoid a trial are under way between lawyers for the JQC and Hawkes. One proposed settlement has already been rejected by the JQC panel, suggesting that Hawkes is looking to get off too easily. If there is no agreement, a trial is likely to begin early next year.

The St. Petersburg Times has reported extensively on the courthouse. In May its editorial board called Hawkes unfit for the bench. Fore more coverage of the case, read Gavel Grab.

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In Wisconsin, High Court Says No to Counseling

Wisconsin’s dissension-riddled supreme court rejected the idea of hiring an organizational consultant to repair the court’s damaged communications, but it did approve a statement pledging to work more collegially.

The proposals were among a dozen put forward by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson after a widely publicized physical altercation occurred between two justices in June while they discussed a case. The idea of a consultant was voted down 4-3, with the court’s conservative majority all in opposition. The collegiality pledge won unanimous approval, but a Wisconsin State Journal article noted that even that vote was tinged with tension.

Justice David Prosser, who was accused of putting his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, and once reportedly called Justice Abrahamson a “bitch,” expressed skepticism about what he called a “nice sounding, but somewhat meaningless” pledge. According to the article:

Abrahamson asked the justices to raise their hands if they supported the statement. Six immediately raised their hands. Prosser paused and then slowly raised his hand.

Abrahamson said there were six votes and one reluctant vote, making the total seven. “Is this in the spirit of what we just adopted?” Prosser asked. Abrahamson said she was joking and apologized.

Friction among the Wisconsin high court justices has paralleled an explosion in costly, divisive elections dating back to 2007. The court’s problems are documented in a New York Times editorial, “A Study in Judicial Dysfunction,” and an April Justice at Stake press release said public confidence in the court had reached a “crisis.”

To learn more about Wisconsin, see these Gavel Grab reports, or see the Wisconsin state news page at www.justiceatstake.org.

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus made a mistake and likely broke the law when she failed to report thousands of votes in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election this spring, but her conduct didn’t constitute a criminal violation, state investigators said, according to an Associated Press article.
  • A blog post from the Womble Carlyle law firm discussed a recent lawsuit challenging a part of North Carolina’s law that provides public financing for judicial campaigns, and the post speculated about the lawsuit’s potential impact on elections in 2012.
  • ABC News furnished a transcript of George Stephanopoulos’ interview with retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who recently has written a memoir entitled “Five Chiefs.”
  • Federal District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin, Texas defended his controversial order that directed certain lawyers to go to a “kindergarten party” because he thought they had engaged in petty squabbling, according to a Wall Street Journal Law Blog post.
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Alabama ‘Jesus or Jail’ Program Delayed

The ultimate get-out-of-jail card, an unusual sentencing plan that lets some offenders in an Alabama town replace jail time with a year of church, has been put on hold,  reports the Huffington Post. The plan, dubbed “Jesus or Jail” by Time magazine and CNN, has stirred vehement protests from the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to a letter to officials in Bay Minette, Ala.,  the ACLU said the scheme “ ‘flagrantly’ violates the separation of church and state.” The Huffington Post article added:

“The faith-based Operation Restore Our Community program, the brainchild of area church leaders, offers first-time, nonviolent offenders the option of attending the house of worship of their choice each week for a year instead of receiving jail time or other punishments.”

One reason cited for the plan is to cut incarceration costs. Bay Minette Mayor Jamie Tillery said a “menu of options” would be available at the judge’s discretion, including community service, but the ACLU insists that church not be one of those choices, reports ABC News. Olivia Turner, executive director of ACLU Alabama, said the “government can’t force participation in religious activity,” according to a CNN article.

There are no synagogues or mosques around the area, and with secular options unlcear, offenders currently would choose from among the 56 local churches that have agreed to this program, reported TIME. The article continued,

“If offenders pick church, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee eternal salvation, but they can check in each week with the pastor or the police department. If the program is completed successfully their case will be dropped.”

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Wisconsin Supreme Court Mulls Recusal Reforms

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will discuss proposed new rules about when justices recuse themselves later this afternoon, according to an Associated Press article.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson issued a memo outlining five proposed recusal reforms:

  1. Adopting an appearance of impropriety standard, which is used in almost every state;
  2. Establishing an independent tribunal to rule on recusal requests, so the challenged justice’s decision is not the final decision;
  3. Select a judge at random to replace a recused justice, so there is no pressure to hear a case in order to avoid an even split among the remaining justices;
  4. Require each justice to attend an education session on recusal every three years; and
  5. Appoint a committee of judges, lawyers, and non-lawyers to review recusal guidelines, particularly in relation to judicial campaigns.

The discussion aims to improve the public’s trust in the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has been the subject of numerous controversies in recent months, see Gavel Grab for details.

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Senate Agrees to Consider 10 Judicial Nominees

Senate leaders have reached an agreement to consider ten judicial nominees in the coming weeks, the Blog of LegalTimes has reported. The candidates, all of whom have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, can expect floor votes beginning as soon as Monday.

Earlier this year, Justice at Stake joined 76 other groups in a letter urging the Senate to confirm judicial nominees in a timely fashion. Since the letter, which was sent to both Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell, little progress has been made on confirmations.

The unprecedented backlog in confirming nominees has caused a federal judicial vacancy crisis. It has resulted in the courts being overburdened like never before, delaying justice for scores of Americans.

The White House has criticized the slow rate of confirmations for Obama’s nominees, citing record delays.

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Libertarian Group Hits 'Myth' of Judicial Activism

Frequent attacks accusing the Supreme Court of “judicial activism” are flat wrong, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group, declares in a report debunking the oft-used political mantra.

Justice at Stake, too, has decried use of the criticism by politicians on all sides, saying it has become essentially meaningless.

“By the numbers, the image of rampant judicial activism is false,” said Clark Neily, an Institute for Justice senior attorney, director of its  Center for Judicial Engagement and co-author of the new report.

“Compared with the explosive growth of laws and regulations, the Supreme Court’s actions to impose constitutional limits on the legislative and executive branches are barely blips on the radar screen,” Niely said in an Institute for Justice web release.

The report said that “[i]n any given year, the Court strikes down just three out of every 5,000 laws passed by Congress and state legislatures.” Also, it said, the Supreme Court “overturned precedents in just two percent of cases considered from 1954 to 2010.” Read more

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