Gavel Grab

Ninth Circuit Court Vacancy Filled After Nine Years

John_Owens_2013The longest vacancy on any federal circuit court was filled Monday after the Senate confirmed Los Angeles attorney John Owens to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The delay in filling the vacancy had more to do with a fight between two states than the usual partisan bickering that’s held up previous judicial seats. SFGate reports that Appeals court judgeships are informally apportioned among states in each circuit. Senators from both Idaho and California laid claim to the seat.

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California Courts Facing Civil Rights Crisis?

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye gives her State of the Judiciary

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye gives her State of the Judiciary

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says the state faces a civil rights crisis because of nearly a half billion dollars in court funding budget cuts since 2008.

“It’s tragic that 50 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, California faces a different type of civil rights crisis,” Cantil-Saauye told the Los Angeles Times. “It is not about the law. It is about access to it.”

According to the Sacramento Bee, delays are faced in numerous cases including urgent family matters, business contracts, wrongful termination and discrimination cases. She assured the legislature that the courts want to be a partner in fair and collaborative solutions.

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Law Dean Focuses on California Judicial Diversity

kevin_johnson_picture_1In an interview with KQED Public Radio in California, the dean of the U.C. Davis Law School suggested there is improvement in diversity on the state’s courts overall, but a large gap remains between the state’s population of Hispanics and its judges who are Latino.

“We’re talking a situation today where basically 60 percent of K-12 students are Latino, and less than 10 percent of the trial court judges are Latino. When justice appears to be meted out by unrepresentative judges, I think that there’s a concern about the legitimacy of the results and the possible racial injustice of it all,” said Kevin R. Johnson (photo). He is the first Latino head of a University of California law school.

Johnson also noted the absence of a Latino or an African-American justice on the state Supreme Court, and a margin of 2-1 males to females on the Court of Appeals and the trial courts. Johnson said a diverse appeals court can help lead to better judicial decision-making by “bringing together a variety of perspectives, a variety of thoughts, a variety of ways of looking at the world.”

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Weigh Diversity in Naming New Justice, California Governor Urged

jerry-brownAs Gov. Jerry Brown weighs an appointment to fill a state Supreme Court vacancy, a Los Angeles Daily News editorial has urged that he consider increasing diversity on the bench and specifically, naming a Latino justice.

There are no Latinos or African Americans on the high court now, the editorial notes, and “With issues involving Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented, so prominent in California politics and law, the state Supreme Court should have a Latino face.”

The governor must consider candidates’ intellect and judicial philosophy first, but after that he should take diversity into account, the editorial adds. It elaborates that the point is not to establish a “pro-Latino” vote on the bench but rather “to take a step toward having a court that represents a variety of California experiences and viewpoints.”

A San Jose Mercury News article, meanwhile, says Brown has made a strong imprint on the state’s courts by “scouring the legal ranks for candidates with some intellectual firepower who might add diversity to the nation’s largest judiciary.” Since taking office to launch his most recent term in 2011 he has “appointed a larger share of women, Latinos and African-Americans to the state bench than any governor in history, including his own first stint decades ago,” the newspaper says.

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California: Budget Cuts Force ‘Rationing Justice’

1387113_ME_court-rally_GEMCalifornia’s courts have sunk so far into a fiscal hole in the past five years after repeated rounds of budget cuts that even a $100 million increase proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown won’t fix the problems. It would take a $244 million increase just for the courts to “tread water” in 2014-2015, state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says.

An article by MintPress News, an independent online news service, shows how extensively the cuts have reduced people’s access to justice:  To pay traffic tickets, people have been forced to wait in line four hours in San Francisco; cuts have led to shorter business hours across the state; 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms have closed; court user fees and legal fines have increased; and it takes at least a five-month wait to get a trial of a traffic case in San Diego. Also, 11 counties are on the record saying they can’t process restraining orders in domestic violence cases on the same day they are filed; and parents in child custody cases have to wait up to 17 weeks for mediation in Stanislaus County.

Justice Cantil-Sakauye and fellow judges have likened the situation to “rationing justice” and warned that a civil-rights issue is now looming. “People have a civil right, and therefore a constitutional right to have their issues resolved in a fair way,” the presiding judge in Riverside County, Mark Cope, said. “When they can’t get into court to have those issues heard … it’s a violation of those rights.”

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Tap CA Budget Surplus for Court Funding, Editorial Urges

With California legislators eyeing different uses for a state budget surplus, a Sacramento Bee editorial has endorsed spending some of it to restore adequate funding for state courts.

After hearing from California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye(photo)  about the courts’ funding needs following a period of recession and major budget cuts, the editorial opposed an increase in court fees and fines:

“Cantil-Sakauye is right to say that we don’t want ‘pay to play’ – one justice system for the well-to-do and another for everyone else. All Californians should get their day in court in a timely fashion.”

The editorial noted that during California’s budget crunch, the state has closed more than 200 courtrooms, reduced hours in other courts and laid off, or not filled the positions of, hundreds of employees. It concluded, “To do justice, however, the overall pie needs to grow. While the state may not be able to afford the courts’ entire three-year blueprint, which calls for more than $612 million in 2014-15, it can’t afford to do nothing.”

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CA Advisory Opinion Addresses Recusal, Aggregated Donations

The California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions has issued new guidance about judicial campaign contributions that may require disqualification of a judge.

Under California law, trial court judges are prohibited from hearing cases when one of the lawyers in the proceeding donated more than $1,500 to the judge’s campaign. In a formal opinion made available this week, the committee said judges must also consider whether aggregated contributions from a group of lawyers or a law firm might cause a reasonable person to doubt the judge’s impartiality and require disqualification.

According to a press release from the California judicial branch, it was “the first advisory opinion in the country to address aggregated and law firm contributions.”

Justice at Stakes works to support robust recusal rules and states on its website, “Stronger recusal rules are needed today, as unprecedented levels of campaign cash are being spent in state judicial elections by parties who appear in court. The U.S. Supreme Court declared, in Caperton v. Massey, that campaign spending can damage a litigant’s right to a fair trial. The court also has declared repeatedly that states may establish recusal rules tougher than required by the Constitution.”

Gavel Grab thanks Election Law Blog for highlighting the announcement.

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Ethics Course for California Judicial Candidates is Mandatory

A new, required course in judicial ethics for candidates for the bench in California went online this week, the California Judicial Branch announced. Candidates must take the course within 60 days of filing to run, creating a campaign committee, or getting a campaign contribution.

The California Supreme Court adopted the requirement rule almost a year ago.

“The Supreme Court changed the rules to promote and enhance public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and to provide guidance on the ethical obligations and responsibilities of those running for judicial office,” said Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. Read more

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California Eyes Jury Inclusion of Legal Noncitizens

California’s legislature has sent to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk a bill that would allow juries to include noncitizens living in the state legally. In the New York Times, columnist Bill Keller, who just spent two days in a jury pool, tells about the idea’s origins and why he likes it.

Juries have become more inclusive in recent decades, and California Assembly Member Bob Wieckowski, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asked why they should be limited to citizens. Noncitizens “benefit from the protections of our laws, so it is fair and just that they be asked to share in the obligation to do jury duty,” he contended.

Noncitizens may sue others, or be charged with crimes, and if they are to be judged, deserve to appear before a jury on which their peers are eligible to serve, Keller asserts. He discounts, meanwhile, the argument that juries should be made up only of people who have a say in making the law. In fact, according to the American Judicature Society, a JAS partner group, laws in 23 states do not require that a judge be a citizen. Read more

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Shrinking Budgets Force Courts to Reduce Hours or Shut Doors

Courthouses across the country are restricting hours or shutting down completely in an effort to save money in a time of tight budgets.  In California, 77 courthouses are closing their doors, and others are reducing their public service hours.  NPR reported on this trend and spotlighted the Fresno County Superior Court’s courthouse in Coalinga, California.

The Coalinga courthouse once had a full-time judge and trials before juries.  Then court officials restricted the types of cases heard there, and later, visiting judges took the place of the full-time judge.  The courthouse has now been closed for a year as a result of budget cuts.  Where a courtroom podium once stood, a television now hangs  for traffic court via video streaming.  All small claims cases and criminal arraignments are dealt with over an hour away in Fresno, resulting in travel expenses that cost the Coalinga police department about $25,000 last year.

In NPR’s reporting, residents and decision makers discussed the court closing.  While one resident discussed the loss of an “American experience,” a local business owner is quoted saying that “I haven’t seen a huge loss with it not being here.”  It is clear that diminishing services have limited access to justice.  Gavel Grab has been following court funding issues closely; to follow these issues on Gavel Grab, click here.

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