Gavel Grab

Archive for July, 2012

Former Employees Testify at Justice Melvin Hearing

Three former employees of now-Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin testified at a preliminary hearing yesterday.

Melvin is currently charged with “theft of services, conspiracy, solicitation to tamper with or fabricate evidence, official oppression and misapplication of entrusted property,” according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Molly Creenan, Lisa Sasinoski, and Kathy Squires said Melvin’s sister and office manager, Janine Orie, requested that they distribute literature at polling places in 2003 and do other campaign work. Squires said, “I felt like it would be in my best interests to do what was asked or what was told. I felt like I had no choice.”

Sasinoski testified that Orie had asked her to forge expense vouchers as a way to get “street money,” for paying poll workers. “I was an attorney who had gone to law school and passed the bar exam. There was absolutely no way I was going to duplicate or fabricate expense vouchers to take money from the campaign,” Sasinoski said.

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Illinois Governor Signs New Law On Judicial Safety Concerns

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (photo) has signed into law the Michael Lefkow and Donna Humphrey Judicial Privacy Improvement Act of 2012. The law is designed to improve the safety of Illinois judges, and allow them to request their personal information be removed from public documents, says a Madison Record article.

The Illinois government hopes the new law will lessen concerns of personal retaliation at the hands of individuals who were significantly affected by a judge’s decision, says the article. It was named for the murdered family members of U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow. Her husband and mother were murdered after she dismissed a plaintiff’s medical malpractice suit, says the article.

Under the law, judges will be able to ask in writing for their personal information to be removed from web sites and public documents. The information includes judges’  home addresses, personal emails, and telephone numbers.  If an individual illegally publishes a judge’s information, they could be charged with a felony should any harm befall the judge.

The Illinois law endeavors to allow judges to “administer justice fairly” without worrying how their actions may affect their safety.

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Legislature Responds Quickly to New Jersey Court’s Pension Ruling

New Jersey voters will consider in November whether to require higher health and pension payments by state judges.

The legislature moved quickly on Monday to put the issue before voters, according to a (Newark) Star-Ledger article, after the state Supreme Court exempted most judges from a new law requiring that public workers pay more for their health benefits and pensions (see Gavel Grab).

Foes warned that the proposed constitutional amendment could undermine fair and impartial courts, while Gov. Chris Christie and some state legislators slammed the state’s high court.

New Jersey Bar Association President Kevin McCann said the proposed amendment poses “an independence issue in that the government cannot intrude into the judicial branch to change their salaries — they can increase it, but they can’t reduce it.”

Christie, a Republican praised the legislature’s action. “Rarely has the public seen such unanimity between the legislative and executive branches that the judicial branch was dead wrong,” Christie said.

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NY Times Editorial Condemns Judicial Ouster Drive in Florida

A New York Times editorial condemns a drive to dump three Florida Supreme Court justices in a November retention (up-or-down) election, saying their ouster would “send a message of intimidation.” The editorial also criticizes Gov. Rick Scott.

Gavel Grab has chronicled the efforts of a tea party-linked group to target the justices in November, an investigation that cleared them of wrongdoing in connection with using court employees to notarize election paperwork, and efforts of an out-of-state group to remove the justices from the retention election ballot. The Times editorial recaps these developments and states that the ouster drive “is being aided and abetted by the Republican governor, Rick Scott.”

The editorial says the “only Democratic appointees on the state’s seven-member court” are being targeted over specific rulings, and it goes on to discuss Scott’s role:

“An investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, ordered by Mr. Scott, found no evidence that the judges abused their official positions — a conclusion seconded by the state attorney, Willie Meggs. But instead of accepting this exoneration, Mr. Scott gave his blessing to a meritless lawsuit filed in June by a right-wing legal policy group based in Georgia that calls for disqualification on the same grounds.

“If the three justices lose their retention battle, it would give Mr. Scott three court vacancies to fill with his own judicial picks. It would also send a message of intimidation undermining judicial independence and impartiality — a price no Florida voter should be willing to pay.”

 

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Only 40 percent of Americans know that nine justices sit on the United States Supreme Court, according to a recent CBS/Vanity Fair poll. A Politico article says that 35 percent of those polled thought that the Supreme Court has twelve justices, and 11 percent said they did not know.
  • Arizona’s Superior Court in Maricopa County released a YouTube video describing the state’s merit selection method for choosing judges. The video contains footage from interviews with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and others involved in the judicial branch.
  • A Detroit Free Press article reports that three judges seeking re-election or higher judicial office received “not qualified” ratings from the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association. This is unusual since sitting judges usually expect a “well qualified” our “outstanding” rating if they’re effective on the bench, the article says.
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Filibuster Blocks Senate Vote on Appeals Court Nominee

Senate Republicans have blocked an up-or-down vote on  President Obama’s nomination of Magistrate Judge Robert Bacharach to the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, although Bacharach had bipartisan backing.

On a  motion to cut off a Republican filibuster, the Senate voted 56-34. Sixty votes were needed to proceed to a confirmation vote by the full Senate. Bacharach’s home-state senators, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, voted “present.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office indicated that no more confirmation votes on appeals court judges would be attempted before the presidential election, according to a Blog of Legal Times report. The freeze on confirmation votes for high-level judges has come after Senate Republicans invoked the so-called “Thurmond Rule,” a loose custom used to block confirmation of high-level judicial nominees in the runup to a presidential election (see Gavel Grab).

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was critical of the GOP filibuster, according to a Washington Post article.

The filibuster is “another example of how extreme Senate Republicans have gone in their efforts to obstruct judicial confirmations,” he said. “Never before has the Senate filibustered and refused to vote on a judicial nominee with such strong bipartisan support who was voted out of the Judiciary Committee with virtually unanimous support.”

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Judicial Candidate Sues Over Public Funds in West Virginia

Allen Loughry, the only candidate running for the West Virginia Supreme Court this year to get public financing, asked the high court to order release of additional public funding to his campaign.

A matching-funds provision in West Virginia’s pilot public financing program for state Supreme Court candidates is up in the air legally (see Gavel Grab), and a lawsuit challenging it recently was filed in federal court.

Loughry argued in his own petition that the provision is legally valid. He argues that rulings by federal courts — including one by the U.S. Supreme Court — that struck down matching-funds provisions in other states don’t apply to West Virginia’s program. He is being represented by the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner group, and West Virginia attorney Marc Williams, according to a West Virginia Record article. Loughry also submitted a response to the federal lawsuit.

Loughry criticized the State Election Commission’s failure to release additional public funds that he had sought. ”This unprecedented decision not to follow this law has the potential of single-handedly destroying the pilot project in addition to negatively impacting the entire Supreme Court election,” Loughry said.

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Complaint Filed Against Judge For “Liking” Facebook Post

Kansas District Judge Jan Satterfield faces an ethics complaint over “liking” a Facebook post by a candidate who is running for local office, the Augusta Gazette reported.

Former Butler County resident Lee White filed a complaint against the judge for clicking on the “like” button of Sheriff Kelly Herzet’s campaign page. The complaint was filed on the grounds that Judge Satterfield violated ethics rules by endorsing a candidate running for public office.

White said liking the post could be interpreted as showing bias:

“Although it seems trivial on the surface, I believe this could be an interesting case and probably the first of its kind in Kansas. With the growth of social media, the court system needs to define how its rules for judges apply in cyberspace. I hope the commission and perhaps even the Kansas Supreme Court will do so in this case.”

Satterfield said she had not been aware of the complaint and has never endorsed a candidate. “I will vote like anyone else, but judges can’t endorse candidates,” she said.

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Race for Florida Judgeship Gets Pointed

The election contest between Hillsborough County, Fla. Judge Ann Ober and challenger John Grant III has produced sharp accusations.

The statements are so stinging that a Tampa Bay Times article juxtaposes them with a dictate from the state Supreme Court’s Code of Judicial Conduct, that judicial candidates shall “maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office.”

In campaign literature, Judge Ober said Grant made obscene calls as a teen, has been subject to three DUI arrests, once hit a police officer, lied on an elections statement and competed for the bottom academic ranking in his law school class.

Grant said his opponent’s campaign mailer ”has no regard for time frame,” that he has overcome things that happened during difficult parts of his life, that he made an oversight on a judicial nominating form, and that the charge he lied is a misrepresentation.

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Scalia on Individual Mandate: A Penalty ‘Can’t be a Pig’

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia criticized the court majority’s reasoning that narrowly upheld most of the Affordable Care Act. He voted in the 5-4 minority.

In a Fox News interview broadcast on Sunday, Justice Scalia discussed the reasoning used by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and four liberal colleagues to find that the individual mandate, a central portion of the overhaul law, “may reasonably be characterized as a tax.”

“There is no way to regard this penalty as a tax. … In order to save the constitutionality, you cannot give the text a meaning it will not bear,” Justice Scalia said, according to a Reuters article. He added, ”You don’t interpret a penalty to be a pig. It can’t be a pig.”

Justice Scalia also said that he expected to choose the timing of his retirement so that a like-minded president could name his successor.

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