A report by the American Constitution Society (see Gavel Grab) sparked renewed media attention to concerns that interest group spending on judicial elections may influence rulings by judges.
“Business donations to judges’ campaigns often equal friendly rulings,” declared a headline for a McClatchy article about the report. Reporter Michael Doyle wrote, “State supreme court justices are favoring the corporate interests that finance their election campaigns, a comprehensive new study concludes.”
Stateline, an online publication of The Pew Charitable Trusts, had an article entitled, “Do Campaign Donations in Judicial Races Influence Court Decisions?” It quoted former Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson as saying, “We are in the midst of a ‘perfect storm’ of campaign money.” He listed these factors: “Favorable judicial rulings to satisfy this money, partisanship and a media attracted to (covering) typical politics that is now threatening to destroy judicial independence and impartiality.” Read more
In the Montana legislature this year, the state Senate passed a bill to bring greater disclosure of the hidden political money that flows through third-party political groups, but the measure languished in the state House. Now disclosure advocates will try another approach, through a ballot measure.
The Missoulian reported that proponents say the measure would require any entities that make expenditures to influence campaigns in the state to disclose that spending and their financial backers. The proponents are led by Republicans.
“We think the people of Montana need to have a voice (on this issue), and we’re confident that they would like to see this dark money reported … so they can follow the money,” said Sen. Jim Peterson, a Republican. Read more
When public defender Ed Sheehy (photo right) was running for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court in 2012, an organization listed as the Montana Growth Network sent out mailers accusing him of being “soft on crime.” Sheehy had won the primary race, but went on to lose the general election in November, reports the Redlands Daily Facts.
Sheehy blames the mailers for his defeat, but due to Montana’s campaign disclosure laws, he was not able to find out who funded the organization. Before the primary, the Montana Growth Network endorsed District Judge Laurie McKinnon (photo below left), the article says, and she later went on to win the election.
A third candidate, attorney Elizabeth Best, spent the most money on her campaign of the three candidates. She told the Center for Public Integrity that she was “stunned” by the outcome. Read more
The findings of an investigation into the conduct of then-Judge Richard Cebull, who forwarded a racist and sexist email about President Obama from his courthouse computer (see Gavel Grab) and who retired this month, remain secret.
An Associated Press article said a Judicial Council order issued in the investigation on March 15 is moot, given the U.S. District judge’s retirement on May 3, according to a new order by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Judicial Council has released neither the order nor the findings of its investigation. When the the Judicial Council meets June 28, it will consider revisions to the order and the memorandum, and it was uncertain whether they would ultimately be made public, the AP said.
Judge Cebull sat in Montana. He apologized to the president after the email was made public.
Public officials from California, New York, Alaska, Maine and other states dialed in to a conference call last month to discuss how to address the rise in undisclosed campaign funds that abounded in the 2012 election, reports the Los Angeles Times.
State officials said they took initiative after federal government actors failed to make any progress on campaign finance laws.
“There is no question that one of the reasons to have states working together is because the federal government, in numerous areas, has failed to take action,” said Ann Ravel, chairwoman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
According to the article, more than $1 billion was spent in 2012 federal races by independent groups. That number is three times as much as it was in 2008. Nonprofit advocacy groups and trade organizations that do not have to disclose their donors spent almost $309 million in 2012, the article says. Read more
In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:
- On Wednesday, the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety debated allowing all county officers and employees to carry guns in courthouses. Gavel to Gavel reports that violence has increased around Texas courthouses, and a Kaufman County prosecutor and his wife were shot recently at their home.
- Judge Richard Cebull of Montana, known for sending a racist email about President Barack Obama last year, has announced he will retire from the bench this May. People for the American Way says that Cebull should have stepped down more than a year ago, and that openly expressed racism and partisanship “are toxic to the idea of a fair and just federal court system.”
- In a New York Times Opinionator blog, Linda Greenhouse considers whether the outcome of the Defense of Marriage Act case before the Supreme Court will become a “constitutional Trojan horse.” The justices seem to be considering the concept of federalism as they approach the case, she says, and may choose to strike down the federal law but leave the decision to legalize same-sex marriage up to the states.
Senior Federal District Judge Richard Cebull, a Montanan who apologized for forwarding a racist and sexist e-mail about President Obama, has submitted a letter stating he will retire fully from the bench on May 3, according to Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.
A special committee investigated both a complaint that Judge Cebull filed against himself and another, and submitted its report to the Judicial Council in December 2012, according to a statement by Judge Kozinski.
The Judicial Council issued an order and memorandum March 15. They are to be confidential during an appeal period, Judge Kozinski wrote.
Montana’s state Senate passed 29-21 a bill to bring greater disclosure of the hidden political money that flows through third-party political groups, the Associated Press reported.
“It’s about transparency and accountability. This bill is designed to address dark money that hides behind a curtain of secrecy and works in an environment that, I think, stifles debate,” said Sen. Jim Peterson, the bill sponsor and a Republican.
“People will speak. They will just hires lot of lawyers and lots of consultants to work around this bill,” contended Senate Majority Leader Art Wittich, also a Republican. “You are not going to see all the disclosure you want.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has announced the formation of a committee to advise her on candidates for federal judicial vacancies in the state.
Distinguished members of the Massachusetts legal community will sit on the committee, according to an Associated Press article. They will review applications for open judgeships, and she ultimately will make recommendations to the White House, Warren said in a press release.
As a way to cool partisan tempers in Washington, the American Bar Association has recommended that senators form bipartisan commissions in each state to review and suggest slates of the most professionally qualified judicial candidates. You can learn more from Justice at Stake’s website
Meanwhile Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mt., has recommended the names of Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris and Yellowstone County District Judge Susan Watters to the White House for two open federal district judgeships in the state, the Montana Standard reported.
President Barack Obama, working to bring far greater diversity to the federal bench, has stepped up dramatically his pace for picking judicial nominees. Since January, he has announced three dozen court candidates, the Washington Post reports.
At the same time, Senate Republicans present a significant obstacle. There are some conservatives who say a push to diversify the judiciary further smacks of an affirmative action scheme that is not warranted.
The Post’s lengthy, front-page article included these Obama achievements in pressing for a more diverse group of federal judges:
- Female judges sit on appeals courts for the first time in four states.
- African-American judges sit on appeals courts for the first time in five states, and Hispanic judges in two. Read more