Gavel Grab

Big Money Judicial Elections Returning to CA Supreme Court?

An election in 1986 brought sweeping changes to the California Supreme Court in what was compared to “a 100-year flood,” because of its unlikelihood, and now according to At the Lectern, another event may not be so far away.

The article cites The New Politics of Judicial Elections reports co-authored by Justice at Stake and The Brennan Center for Justice detailing how judicial elections across the country have become more expensive and politicized.

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Solutions to CA Court Budget Crisis May Be Unconstitutional

The budget cuts to the state court system in California is having far-reaching ramifications.

According to East Bay Express, Alameda County is now charging high fees to look at court documents online. Some legal experts say may be unconstitutional.

“Any time you impose a fee or other barrier to access, that’s going to have some effect on those First Amendment rights,” David Greene, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the paper. The high fees affect “the public’s ability to monitor litigation and access the historical record,” he added.

Budget cuts over the past several years have slashed more than $1 billion from the state court system and have left many courts struggling to provide services.

“Sound governance necessitates the implementation of comprehensive cost-recovery strategies,” said Leah Wilson, the executive officer of the Alameda County Superior Court. “The new fees do help to alleviate the difficult budget situation caused by declining state funding.”

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has repeatedly asked the legislature to restore and increase court funding.

Meantime, access to justice will be a little more difficult for those in the Santa Barbara area. According to Edhat, two Superior Court of California, County of Santa Barbara clerks’ offices will close in October.

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California Citizens United Ballot Initiative on Hold

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling halting action on a state ballot initiative that would have asked California voters’ opinions regarding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C. (2010), the Los Angeles Times reports.

The provision, which would have had no binding legal effect, was contested because it would “not change state law.”

The ballot initiative is now on hold pending court review. Both sides agree that this decision means that the question will not appear on this year’s ballot.

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Groups Criticize the Lack of Judicial Diversity

During this judicial election season, groups from various parts of the nation are striving to improve the reality of diversity in courts.

A coalition of eight Asian American bars denounced the lack of Asians among Gov. Jerry Brown’s 10 new judicial appointments to the California Superior Court in mid-July “as lagging behind Northern California’s demographics,” reported.

The Coalition of Asian Pacific Islander Bar Associations of Northern California stated that Gov. Brown “lags far behind the record of his Republican predecessor, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed 13 Asian American judges in Northern California during his two terms.” Read more

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CA Court Nomination Makes ‘Statement to the Rest of the Nation’

CASupremeCourtGov. Jerry Brown’s nomination of Stanford law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a Mexican immigrant to the United States, to the California Supreme Court is sparking attention for the statement it makes about diversity.

The nomination represents “a statement to the rest of the nation as we go through this backlash against immigrants,” said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article. 

California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg described the nomination as “a timely reminder that our Golden State was forged by disparate immigrant communities who pushed frontiers and who, together, recognized a common strength in diversity.” Read more

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Governor Nominates Law Professor Cuéllar for CA High Court



Gov. Jerry Brown has nominated Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a Stanford law professor and Mexican-born immigrant to the United States, to the California Supreme Court.

Cuéllar has served under Presidents Obama and Clinton and has an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and advanced degrees from Yale Law School and Stanford, according to the Los Angeles Times. If confirmed, Cuéllar would be the only Latino serving on the state’s highest court, NBC News reported.

In commending Brown’s choice, the  National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said, “It is vital that the state’s highest court reflect the full diversity of its residents.” Read more

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Campaign Finance Measures Advance in California, Massachusetts

campaign_financeCalifornia Gov. Jerry Brown said he will allow citizens to vote this fall on an advisory measure asking Congress to revise the U.S. Constitution and overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Citizens United was “wrongly decided and grossly underestimated the corrupting influence of unchecked money on our democratic institutions,” the governor said in a message to legislators, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, he said the advisory measure would have no legal effect and he would not sign it.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the state House has passed legislation to require greater public disclosure by super PACs, and the Senate will consider it. Read more

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Record Spending Ahead in L.A. Court Primary Race?

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdA primary contest for a Los Angeles Superior Court seat is likely to see record spending by one of two candidates, Deputy District Attorney Helen Kim, the Metropolitan News-Enterprise reports.

Kim’s campaign had raised more than $853,000 and spent more than $415,000 by May 17.  The primary will be held June 3. Her campaign’s next spending report will be due July 31.

The campaign of Deputy District Attorney Alison Matsumoto Estrada, opposing Kim, had raised $144,000 and had less than $17,000 on hand 10 days ago. The past record spending for a Los Angeles Superior Court judgeship in a primary contest was $450,000, in a race two years ago.

Donors to the Kim and Estrada campaigns included attorneys and judges.

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Critical Ads in Judicial Elections Draw Attention, Questions

RobinHudsonAttackAdAds critical of judicial candidates are getting attention, and questioning, in news media reports from several states.

As Gavel Grab mentioned earlier, a TV ad in the North Carolina Supreme Court primary said incumbent Justice Robin Hudson was “not tough on child molesters.” Raleigh News & Observer columnist Rob Christensen now writes that $1.3 million spent linking the judge and child molesters “was too extreme.” It is evidence that voters “know when one [negative ad] doesn’t pass the smell test” that the ad “backfired and Hudson led the primary field,” he adds.

Meanwhile, regarding an Arkansas Supreme Court race set for May 20, a Times Record article focused on an ad by the Law Enforcement Alliance of America that accuses a candidate of believing that child pornography is a victimless crime.

The Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers condemned the ad. “To challenge the qualifications of a judicial candidate for fulfilling a constitutional mandate of a person’s right to counsel is to belittle one of the core beliefs of this country,” said Justin Eisele, the group’s president. Read more

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Ethics Watchdog Casts ‘Ballot Against Judicial Elections’

“I cast my ballot against judicial elections,” writes Jessica Levinson, who teaches at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. Her essay is entitled, “Why voters shouldn’t be electing judges.”

In an explanatory piece about how judicial elections for lower courts in California work — or fall short of working — Levinson points out how little meaningful information voters know about judicial candidates and how lawyers who appear before judges are most likely to make contributions in judicial elections. She goes on to cite the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12” compiled by JAS and two partner organizations:

“It is problematic for judicial candidates to ask for and receive money from those who may have cases before them in the future. A 2013 report by the Brennan Center, the National Institute on Money in State Politics and Justice at Stake detailed the pitfalls of such a system.” Read more

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