The University of Chicago Law School was visited by five judges this past year as part of the school’s new Distinguished Visiting Jurists program.
According to the Law School Office of Communications, the program is designed to give students an inside view of the judiciary and the role judges play.
The five visiting judges each gave a lunch talk about their experiences on the bench.
“Judges reinforce, supplement, and challenge what students get in the classroom, and the judges get to speak to some of the best soon-to-be lawyers in the country. We’ve learned a great deal from the judges this year, and we hope they have learned from us as well,” said Professor Lior Strahilevitz, who organized the speaker series.
Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Thomas B. Griffith of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Gary Feinerman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Judge Reena Raggi of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Robert Sack of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals all spoke during the Sidebar: Conversations with the Bench workshop.
State judicial elections are often tricky to navigate, and even more so for candidates with little to no experience running a political campaign. Because of this, business in Illinois is booming for political consultants, says the Chicago Tribune.
When Terrence Lavin, former president of the Illinois State Bar Association, wanted to run for a vacancy on the Illinois Appellate Court, he hired campaign consultants Michael Tierney and Wallace “Gator” Bradley to assist in his campaign. Lavin later won the election in November 2012.
According to the article, there is growing concern about the influence of political consultants in the state’s judicial elections. Watchdog groups fear that the process will become more political as more money pours into campaigns. Read more
While defenders of federal courts have spoken frequently in the past few weeks about a need for greater funding, court systems at the state level are also experiencing dire consequences from smaller budgets.
In Oregon, layoffs have led to overflowing caseloads and shuttered courthouses, an Oregonian editorial says. According to the state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Balmer, the courts need $410 million from 2013-2015 in order to run efficiently everyday at full capacity.
While the state courts deserve to be funded equally as a third branch of government, the editorial argues, legislators have yet to find an adequate source of money. The courts are having to spend increasingly more on its pension system, making it difficult to find a long term solution to the system’s search for funds, it says. Read more
Reflecting on the recent case of an oft-elected county judge who was found not guilty on battery charges by reason of insanity (see Gavel Grab), a Chicago Sun-Times editorial urged new ways “to dump incompetent county judges”:
“Two constitutional amendments are in the works in Springfield to fix that. Neither is perfect, but legislators should fine-tune them until they have the best possible answer for our broken system.”
One would set up special commissions to decide whether a judge was doing his or her job properly and should be retained. According to a Gavel to Gavel article, if seven members of the 11-member panel approved, the judge would return to the bench. If seven did not approve, the judge could run in a retention (up-or-down) election for a new term. The proposal is similar to a system in Hawaii.
After winning reelection in November, Illinois Judge Cynthia Brim faced battery charges for shoving a deputy last March, but was found not guilty this week by reason of insanity.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Brim was effectively suspended last year, but maintained her $182,000 a year salary. Since 2000, bar associations have suggested that she be removed from the bench, the article notes.
The judge was diagnosed with a bipolar type of schizoaffective disorder, and had been hospitalized several times after mental breakdowns in the courtroom. Brim had been given medication, but was not taking it consistently.
A Chicago Tribune editorial said Illinois voters should not have to put up with a judicial election and retention system that allowed someone in Brim’s condition to stay on the bench for years, calling it a “rotten crime.”
The Illinois State Bar Association has proposed a new judicial disqualification rule, which next will be considered by the state Supreme Court. Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said in a letter the proposal falls short and “would be a step backward, not forward.”
According to a Madison County (Ill.) Record article, the proposed rule would require a judge to step aside from a case if there was a probability of bias after consideration of relevant circumstances, to include campaign donations.
“I think it’s important for all of us in the profession to look for ways we can address the perception of the public that politics plays way too big of a role in the way we select our judges,” ISBA President John Thies said.
Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center, a JAS partner group, wrote a letter Dec. 14 to Thies expressing concerns that the proposal “would erect a threshold for recusal that is both higher than what exists under existing ethics rules and undesirable as a matter of policy.” Read more
Efforts to unseat state supreme court justices in retention (yes-or-no) elections failed in Arizona and Indiana.
In Arizona, Supreme Court Justice John Pelander set up a campaign committee to defend against a GOP and tea party effort to unseat him (see Gavel Grab). Justice Pelander is a Republican. Justice Pelander and other appellate judges on the ballot ”coasted easily” to retention, the Arizona Republic reported.
In Indiana, Supreme Court Justice Steven David, the target of some anti-retention efforts over a single ruling in a controversial case (see Gavel Grab), won another term with 69 percent of votes cast. An Associated Press article characterized the retention challenge as rare. Read more
In an Illinois dispute over the winner of a judicial primary election, a Williamson County judge has ordered results of a Nov. 6 judicial race suppressed and directed that no Election Day winner be certified.
The unusual order came this week in protracted litigation by judicial candidate Kent Renshaw, who has contested results of a March primary that gave a Democratic nomination victory to Eric Dirnbeck. In a five-person field, Dirnbeck was declared the winner by 42 votes over Renshaw. On the Nov. 6 ballot, Dirnbeck’s name will appear without a rival, according to an article in The Southern Illinoisan.
Last year, Judge Barbara Crowder was barred from hearing all asbestos cases after her campaign had received $30,000 from three law firms representing plaintiffs in asbestos-exposure cases. The judge subsequently directed her campaign committee to give back the donations, and she denied any wrongdoing.
A pro-Crowder TV ad made available by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch features a female narrator who states, “Judge Barb Crowder knows our courts are here to ensure that justice is served and [family violence] victims are protected.” The ad urges a vote to retain Crowder, who the narrator says is “serving to stop the cycle of family violence.”
What should voters do when faced with a long list of little-known judicial candidates to consider on Election Day?
The Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a nonprofit JAS partner group, suggests voters do some homework in advance, in order to ensure a quality judiciary. To help Illinois citizens, the group’s VoteForJudges.org website provides nonpartisan recommendations on judicial candidates from area bar organizations.
The voter education efforts of Chicago Appleseed were spotlighted in a Chicago Daily Herald article, entitled “Judge ratings make daunting task easier for voters.” An Illinois Watchdog article, meanwhile, quoted Justice at Stake spokeswoman Eeva Moore about the importance of voters casting a ballot in judicial contests.
“The big challenge is that people have the question, Does this relate to their daily lives in any immediate sense,” she said. “However, the courts impact people’s lives on a daily basis. What’s happened is you have a vacuum of people not voting as much or dropping off when they reach the judicial section of the ballot. And in many states we see special interests step in to fill that void.”