Gavel Grab

‘Back to the Wild West,’ Campaigning N.C. Justice Says

Justice Hudson

Justice Hudson

After North Carolina’s legislature repealed last year the state’s public financing program for judicial campaigns, “We’re kind of back to the Wild West,” said an incumbent justice seeking reelection. The National Journal article that features her concerns zeroes in on judicial candidates forced to become more like partisan politicians, and it quotes Justice at Stake.

“I’ve basically got two full-time jobs: A full-time job running a campaign. And a full-time job on the court. I’ve had to spend time on the phone when I can,” raising money, incumbent Justice Robin Hudson told National Journal for its vividly detailed article. “It’s awful.” She was the justice who made the “Wild West” remark.

Another dimension of big-spending judicial elections is a question of partiality that can arise when a judicial campaign accepts money from lawyers or law firms who later may appear before the judge. Reporter James Oliphant notes that at a multi-candidate forum, candidate and incumbent Justice Robert Hunter asked for both votes and financial support and added, “I look forward to seeing you in court.”

“At every turn,” the article states, “the candidates have encountered hand-wringing over money and influence. They insist they’re judges and lawyers first, pols second. But they’ve been dragged into a system that, across the country, increasingly blurs those lines. ‘We want judges to be different, but we’ve thrown them into this political blender where they’re just like any politician,’ says Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.” Read more

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Proposed Judicial Selection Change Debated in Tennessee

TennesseeA flurry of commentary about a judicial selection ballot measure in Tennessee is providing voters with differing points of view.

The proposed constitutional amendment, called Amendment 2, would change the way appellate judges are chosen. After the governor appoints a judge, legislative confirmation would be required if the amendment passes. When a judge seeks a new term, voters would decide whether to retain him or her.

“By voting yes on Amendment 2, we can show these special interest groups that in Tennessee, justice is not for sale,” attorney Bradford D. Box wrote in a Jackson Sun op-ed. He said the constitutional language would give Tennesseans “a strong voice in every step of the process.” Read more

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Conflict at Divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Allegations of wrongdoing are threatening to cast a cloud over the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One justice, Seamus McCaffery, “acknowledged sending sexually explicit messages from a personal account,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, and a divided court is weighing action.

There’s more to the messy and still-unfolding story. Justice McCaffery has labeled a push for his suspension by Chief Justice Ronald Castille as part of a “vindictive pattern attacks” on McCaffery, according to the Inquirer.

And Justice J. Michael Eakin, the Inquirer said, “was shown to have been sent pornographic and racially tinged e-mails on an anonymous private account”; the article said Justice Eakin “reported himself to the Judicial Conduct Board.” He “accused McCaffery of threatening to release the sexually explicit emails in Read more

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Article Looks at Issues in High Court’s Judicial Elections Case

washington-supreme-court-building-washington-d-c-dc169When the important principles of “freedom of speech and public confidence in the integrity of the courts” collide, what happens next? A lengthy Tampa Tribune article explores this issue in spotlighting a newly accepted Supreme Court case from Florida.

In Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the Supreme Court is asked to decide whether states including Florida can continue to bar judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign donations. (To read background of the case, see these earlier Gavel Grab posts.)

Matthew Menendez of the Brennan Center for Justice told the newspaper that a majority of the public believes campaign cash influences decisions from the bench. The Brennan Center is a JAS partner organization.

“The public really does lack confidence that judges can really go and raise money from parties that appear before them and not consider the contributions when making decisions,” he said. “If we still are using elections as a method to select judges, it is imperative to take steps to ensure that judicial elections do not erode the public’s confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.’’ Read more

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Former Senator: Don’t Permit ‘Lame-Duck’ Stacking of Court

VillalobosFlorida’s proposed Amendment 3 “opens the door for lame-duck governors in the future to stack the court on their way out the door,” former state Sen. Alex Villalobos writes in a Miami Herald opinion.

“It is just the latest in a series of outrageous proposals aimed at seizing partisan control over our fair and impartial courts,” writes Villalobos, who served as Republican majority leader of the Senate. He parts ways with Republicans currently in the state legislature who have pushed for the proposed constitutional amendment. At the same time, he does not mention party affiliation in his op-ed.

The amendment would allow outgoing governors to make certain prospective judicial appointments. In urging a “no” vote on Election Day, Villalobos adds, “Floridians across the political spectrum have consistently agreed on the importance of keeping partisan politics out of our courts.”

Villalobos belongs to the Justice at Stake board of directors. He did not write the commentary in his JAS role.

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Karmeier Campaign Says Foe is ‘Shadow’ Group

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, seeking a new term in a retention (yes-or-no) election, is facing more than half a million dollars in opposition spending by a “shadow” group, according to a Karmeier campaign press release that is the subject of a Madison-St. ClairRecord article.

The group is named Campaign for 2016. “This is a complete shadow organization, because their leadership and funding sources are unknown,” said Karmeier’s campaign committee manager, Ron Deedrick. So far the incumbent’s campaign has raised $121,100 in individual campaign donations, according to the article.

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • An ABA Journal headline regarding the legality of bans on marriage for same-sex couples said, “Federal judges OK same-sex marriage in Arizona and Wyoming; SCOTUS declines Alaska stay.”
  • “Supreme Court Allows Texas to Use Strict Voter ID Law in Coming Election,” the New York Times reported. For links to more news media coverage see SCOTUSblog.
  • An Albuquerque Journal commentary by two members of the New Mexico Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission gave the commission’s recommendations on retention races and ways voters can educate themselves further.
  • A total of 19 candidates are running for election to one North Carolina Court of Appeals seat, the Charlotte Observer reported. Check out Gavel Grab for background.
  • Jeffrey Toobin reported in a New Yorker article about President Obama’s judicial legacy, including increasing diversity, and Toobin talked to Obama for the piece.
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Supreme Court Case: How to Balance Free Speech, Judicial Ethics

supreme_court_building_515The Supreme Court’s agreeing to consider a former judicial candidate’s challenge of her reprimand in Florida, for personally soliciting campaign donations in violation of a judicial ethics rule (see Gavel Grab), is getting increased attention.

The court’s taking up Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar has helped place Lanell Williams-Yulee in a “controversy that pits democracy and free speech against judicial ethics and due process,” Mark Joseph Stern writes at Slate. 

Stern’s judgment of where the high court will end up is summed up in the commentary’s headline: “Justice for Sale: The Supreme Court is poised to make judicial elections even more corrupt.” Read more

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Crossfire in Commentaries Over Alaska Judicial Council

Alaska-quarterFrom an op-ed critical of the Alaska Judicial Council and a rebuttal by a council defender, you can learn about controversy over a nonpartisan entity established at Alaska’s statehood to evaluate judicial candidates within a merit-based selection system.

John Harmon, an Anchorage educator and a former Fortune 500 corporate attorney, wrote recently in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, “Alaska promotes its judicial system as ‘merit’ based, but the actions seen from the Council appear to be those of partisan politics.”

This week Barbara Hood, a retired attorney and a founding board member of Justice Not Politics Alaska, wrote a Valley Frontiersman reply asserting that the council is doing its job well. “In recent years, members of Alaska’s judiciary have come under attack by political groups with agendas,” she said. “Now the same special interest groups seek to reshape our justice system by targeting the council itself.” Read more

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Two Kansas Justices Face Anti-Retention Effort Over Ruling

Justice Rosen

Justice Rosen

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider throwing out a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that struck down death penalty sentences handed two brothers in a notorious quadruple killing (see Gavel Grab).

Petitions to reinstate death penalties for Jonathan and Reginald Carr were filed with the nation’s highest court this week, according to the Wichita Eagle. The state Supreme Court’s voiding three of each man’s four capital murder convictions generated controversy, and now, some of the victims’ kin have created an organization devoted to defeating in November two of the justices who participated in the ruling. The group is called Kansans for Justice.

Justice Johnson

Justice Johnson

Only Justices Lee Johnson and Eric Rosen, of the court’s seven members, are on the retention (up-or-down) ballot, according to a different Wichita Eagle article. 

Mark Befort, brother of one of the victims, told the newspaper of the devastating pain his family suffered in both the crime spree and through re-living it when the defendants were tried in court. He said the state’s highest court “has voted to either eliminate these verdicts or force all of the family members and surviving victims to have to once again re-live those crimes in court, or see these guilty verdicts erased. Read more

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