In an editorial piece for the Constitution Daily , the blog of the National Constitution Center, veteran legal analyst Lyle Denniston examines a quote from Washington Post columnist Jonathan Bernstein. Bernstein had urged current Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer to retire in order to protect their legacies.
Denniston notes that resigning from a seat on the highest court in the land can be a very difficult decision. There is often pressure from media and political figures to retire when a particular party is in power. The editorial points out that this can often contribute to the seemingly partisan nature of the judgeships. “In a political era in which Americans are so deeply polarized about their public policy goals, it is easy to overlay that polarization on the courts,” Denniston writes.
Denniston goes on to quote Alexander Hamilton from Federalist Paper No. 78., stating that his enduring words embody the idea that courtrooms should be free from bias and political pressure
An Atlantic online article spotlights massive spending on state judicial elections — as highlighted by Justice at Stake — and some judges’ assets that may pose a conflict of interest as twin threats to fair and impartial courts.
The article is headlined, “How America’s Judges Are Being Bought Out: We think of courts as being immune to money interests. Some of them, as disclosure reports for state Supreme Court judges reveal, are not.” It focuses on a Center for Public Integrity report this week that gave 42 states and the District of Columbia failing grades as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges (see Gavel Grab).
The article also provides a link to the “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12” report compiled by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The article states:
“In recent years, some judicial elections have begun to look just like political campaigns, complete with attack ads, political action committees, and millions of dollars in fundraising for candidates. The financial involvement of special-interest groups in state Supreme Court races across the country has blurred the boundaries between money and politics and justice, alarming citizens and ethicists alike.”
At an event sponsored this week by the Oklahoma State Chamber, Shannon said the judiciary should not be setting policy, according to a Tulsa World article, and he said there will likely be legislation for term limits or age limits for appellate judges. He also mentioned possible changes to the current merit selection system for choosing appellate judges, which includes a judicial screening commission that makes recommendations to the governor.
Legislation for lawsuit reform and for restrictions on abortions, backed by Republicans, has met a dead end at the state’s highest court. Shannon is a Republican. State Sen. Sean Burrage, a Democrat, warned against efforts to retaliate against the courts for doing their job.
Earlier this week, one of the state’s top Oklahoma Supreme Court justices said about the Judicial Nominating Commission (see Gavel Grab), “I can assure you that it’s not broke.”
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- When the U.S. Senate returns to work next week, it plans to take up on Monday the first of three nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that previously were stalled by Senate Republicans, before the Senate changed its filibuster rules. An up-or-down vote on the nomination of Patricia Millett is expected Monday afternoon, Politico reported.
- In North Carolina, two incumbent state Supreme Court justices who are seeking re-election next year invited big-name guests and others to a fundraiser for which they sought donations up to the $4,000 maximum, according to the (Raleigh) News & Observer.
An Allegheny County (Pennsylvania) County Court of Common Pleas judge-elect is asking area attorneys to donate money so she can reduce or eliminate her campaign debt. To a court reform group, this practice doesn’t pass the smell test.
“I’m not blaming the treasurer or the judge-elect, but it does raise at least the question of the appearance of impropriety,” Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said of the controversy surrounding Judge-Elect Jennifer Satler. ”The real problem is that there can be this perception of favoritism after she’s elected if one side or the other has made a large contribution to the judge.”
Marks told WTAE-TV that the problem “isn’t with the candidates themselves. The real problem is the system.” PMC, a Justice at Stake partner organization, is supporting legislation for Pennsylvania to switch from partisan, contested judicial elections to a merit selection system for choosing appellate judges.
Satler’s campaign manager said the fundraising letter was unsuccessful.
A report by the Center for Public Integrity that evaluates financial disclosure levels of judges on states’ highest courts (see Gavel Grab) has continued to make a big media splash across the country.
The report gave 42 states and the District of Columbia failing grades for judicial disclosure requirements, saying this made it difficult for the public to identify potential conflicts of interest on the bench.
In the (Jackson, Ms.) Clarion Ledger, Jimmie Gates discussed the report and called for strong requirements to help ensure impartial courts:
“If we care about a fair and impartial judiciary, we need to ensure that judges report any gifts they receive and whether they have any interest in any company that may have come before the court. We hope judges will always do the honorable thing Read more
Stepping into a debate about Oklahoma’s merit selection process for choosing judges, Oklahoma Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice John Reif expressed his personal views about the Judicial Nominating Commission, a central part of the merit system.
“The JNC has served the people in this state very well and while it certainly deserves some attention and discussion, I can assure you that it is not broke,” he told the annual meeting of the Oklahoma Bar Association, according to a TulsaBusiness.com article.
He also said that retention (up-or-down) elections, another feature of the state’s merit selection system, provide accountability. “I think we can trust the people to have the power of retentions elections as a check on the judiciary,” he said. “It is something in my experience that has worked very well to serve the interest of both the people and justice.”
To learn about proposals to revise or eliminate merit selection in Oklahoma, see Gavel Grab for background.
An editorial in the Asheville Citizen Times urges the state to restore funding for North Carolina’s courts. The battle for more funding will be an uphill battle, the editorial notes, observing that “Funding of courts is a hugely important issue, but not one that fits on a bumper sticker or excites crowds on the campaign trail.” Under the current system, counties are obligated to provide for the physical facilities of the courts, and the state is supposed to pay for personnel. However, the 2011-2012 General Assembly eliminated funding for 200 full time positions and 61 magistrates.
The editorial warns that without help from the state, local courts may be forced to seek other methods of raising money that potentially hurt the justice system. These could include raising fees, which would deny access to the courts for those who have little money, or seeking funds from other donors, which creates the potential for corruption in the court room.
Forty-two states and the District of Columbia received failing grades from the Center for Public Integrity as a part of an evaluation of disclosure requirements for high court judges. The Center found 35 examples of questionable gifts as well as caseloads that coincided with investments. Though a few did better than the others, no state was able to earn an A or a B mark.
Even with limited information available the three years of personal finance disclosures investigated created a varied list of questionable activity. This activity included judges that authored favorable opinions of companies they owned stock in along with other justices accepting lavish gifts from lawyers. Enforcement of disclosure rules was also found to be problematic with 12 states relying on justices to enforce the ethics rules of the courts on themselves.
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- iCivics, the nonprofit civics education organization run by Justice at Stake Honorary Chair Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, will convene a national Teachers Council in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2014, according to Tribune Interactive. The Tribune report notes that an Alabama middle school teacher is among those selected for the Council.
- WDDE reports that Delaware’s Judicial Nomination Commission has officially submitted four candidates to Gov. Jack Markell to consider for Delaware’s next Supreme Court Chief Justice. The four candidates are Delaware Supreme Court Justice Carolyn Berger, Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden, Court of Chancery Chancellor Leo Strine Jr. and Superior Court President Judge James T. Vaughn Jr. One of these candidates will replace Myron Steele, who stepped down from the position last month. Gov. Markell is expected to make his nomination and submit it to the senate in January when the General Assembly returns to work.