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Potential Changes for Merit Selection in Alaska and Florida

The possibility of moving merit selection legislation forward in several states was covered on Gavel Grab last week.  Since then some of the mentioned changes have moved forward in Alaska and Florida as reported on Gavel to Gavel.

In Alaska, two bills have the potential to alter the state’s Judicial Council.  While one went into limbo due to a canceled hearing, the SJR 21 was amended and voted on in the Senate Finance Committee and will be advanced to the Senate Floor.

Meanwhile, the Florida Senate has advanced a proposed constitutional amendment to allow governors to make “prospective appointments” for anticipated appellate court vacancies.  If the amendment goes on to be approved and Republican Governor Rick Scott is reelected, he could fill all three seats on the state supreme court currently being held by Democrat-appointed justices.

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Florida Court-Packing Proposal Advances in State Senate

A court-packing proposal that would permit Florida’s next governor to choose a majority of the state Supreme Court (see Gavel Grab) won approval in a state Senate committee, and it faces a hearing in a second committee later.

The proposed constitutional amendment would allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments of judges. At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, panel chairman and bill sponsor Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican, said the measure was intended to clarify muddled existing law and avoid the possibility of a constitutional crisis when one governor is leaving office, a successor is taking office, and a justice’s term expires on inauguration day.

According to a Miami Herald blog, however, the proposal allows court-packing, and Democrats opposed it:

“[B]ecause of a coincidence of timing, the terms of three of the seven sitting justices are expected to expire at the same time as the term of the next governor. As a result, the proposed amendment effectively allows the governor elected in 2014 to stack the court as one Read more

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Another Court-Packing Plan Weighed in Florida Legislature

A proposed constitutional amendment in Florida puts another court-packing scheme before the  legislature. It would allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments of judges, and if passed would permit the next governor to choose a majority of the state Supreme Court, the Miami Herald reports.

If the measure were adopted, the next governor would be able to appoint not only the successor to a justice who retires in January 2017 but also successors to three justices who are scheduled to retire in January 2019, the newspaper said. There are seven justices on the court. The latter three make up the court’s liberal wing; the bill sponsor is a Republican.

The measure specifically allows the governor who is stepping down to make appointments to the bench for vacancies that occur on inauguration day, in order to clarify uncertainty in existing law as to whether such appointments are made by the arriving, or departing, governor.

There is “commotion” in the legal community about giving such Read more

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In Final Hours, Senate Confirms Judge for Federal Court in Florida

BULLETIN: The Senate confirmed Judge Brian Davis for a federal district judgeship in Florida on a vote of 68-26. His nomination had been before the Senate for more than 650 days, according to the Florida Times-Union.

The U.S. Senate, its proceedings hobbled by partisan discord, reached an agreement on Thursday night to vote on a small batch of nominations and began doing so on Friday morning.

One of the nominations teed up for action was that of Judge Brian Davis for a federal district judgeship in Florida. It appeared that action on the nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals was a casualty of escalated partisanship and would not be brought up for action before the Senate’s holiday recess, which was to begin shortly.

The New York Times reported that Senate business was “derailed by discord all week” and that much of it was driven by Republicans’ unhappiness over Democrats’ recent pulling the trigger on the so-called “nuclear option” to change its rules and eliminate filibusters on cabinet nominees and all nominees except those for the Supreme Court.

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Former Sen. Villalobos of Florida Joins Justice at Stake Board

Former Florida state Sen. J. Alex Villalobos, a leader in defending fair and impartial courts, has joined the Justice at Stake Board of Directors, JAS announced on Thursday.

Villalobos is Of Counsel at Meyer, Brooks, Demma and Blohm, P.A. He is a former Republican Majority Whip in the Florida House of Representatives and a former Republican Majority Leader in the Florida Senate. He is president of Democracy at Stake, a coalition of Florida individuals and organizations that works to keep politics out of the courts.

“We are delighted to have Sen. Villalobos join the Justice at Stake Board,” Mark Harrison, chairman of the JAS Board of Directors, said in a statement. “He brings sterling experience as a lawyer and a legislative leader. And he deeply understands the importance of bipartisanship when it comes to defending courts against attacks by special interests or politicians.”

Liz Seaton, acting JAS executive director, said Villalobos “has served on the front lines in protecting every American’s right to a fair day in court, and he provided strong bipartisan leadership when three Florida Supreme Court justices were targeted in last year’s retention elections by groups unhappy with court rulings.”

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KS Editorial Forecasts ‘Heated Ideological Battle’ Over Court

Political deal-making in appointing top judges and court-stacking are among the dangers posed by legislation introduced in Kansas to change the way judges are selected, a Lawrence Journal World editorial says. It warns of a likely “heated ideological battle next year about the role and significance of the state’s highest court.”

The editorial dissects three late-session proposals introduced by Republican Rep. Lance Kinzer (see Gavel Grab). The proposals would eliminate merit selection for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court and replace it with a federal-style appointment-and-Senate-confirmation system; if that fails, reduce from 75 to 65 the mandatory retirement age for these judges; and split the Supreme Court in two, with a Court of Criminal Appeals handling criminal cases and the Supreme Court handling civil cases.

The editorial sees at play the guiding hand of politicians unhappy with court rulings, and it identifies perils of the proposals:

“It’s no secret that Gov. Sam Brownback and many state legislators are upset with the Kansas Supreme Court and its decisions on a number of issues — particularly its ruling that the state isn’t fulfilling its constitutional mandate to properly fund K-12 education. Rather than work to pass legislation or amend the constitution to deal with specific issues like school finance, however, legislators are choosing to attack the courts in ways that could potentially upset the intended balance of power among the three branches of government. Read more

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Brandenburg: Voters Delivered Mandate for Impartial Courts

Although the presidential election underscored deep division in America, voters delivered a true mandate on another front: “[T]hey want their judiciary to be nonpartisan,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg wrote in a Slate commentary.

“Tucked away in last Tuesday’s national election results was a bona fide mandate, on a scale that presidents can only dream of. Voters across the country rejected a multifront crusade to bully judges and politicize courtrooms,” Brandenburg wrote.

He suggested that the election results in court contests and on court-related ballot measures added up to a “bipartisan backlash” against attacks on our courts. In Iowa and Florida,  voters retained state Supreme Court justices despite aggressive and partisan ouster campaigns;  in Arizona, Missouri, and Florida, voters decisively rejected ballot items to “water down” merit-based judicial selection.

Brandenburg’s analysis of a far-reaching  victory on Election Day for defenders of fair and impartial courts was headlined, “Beating Back the War on Judges: Voters rejected the crusade to politicize the courts.”

Read more

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Florida Voters Reaffirm Fair and Impartial Judiciary

On Tuesday, Florida voters retained three Supreme Court justices and rejected a proposed ballot measure that would have altered the state’s court system, “affirming the value of an apolitical judiciary,” a Herald-Tribune editorial says.

63 percent of voters opposed Amendment 5, which would have required Senate confirmation of Florida’s Supreme Court justices, and allowed legislators to alter rules for the court system. The amendment was called a power grab by state lawmakers and an example of overreaching, the editorial says (see Gavel Grab).

Floridians also voted to retain Justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince. All three received about 67 percent of the vote, the editorial notes. The three had faced an “unprecedented opposition” by interest groups and the Republican Party of Florida.

According to the editorial, each of the justices raised almost $300,000 to finance their campaign. They were supported by lawyers and others in the legal field.

Despite efforts to inject politics into the courts this election, Tuesday “provided an encouraging affirmation of a judiciary free from unnecessary political interference.”

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JAS, Brennan: Voters Reject Efforts to ‘Hijack’ Courts

Americans overwhelmingly rejected big-money attempts to hijack their courts on Election Day, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said in an analysis released on Wednesday.

There was record spending in state supreme court races as super PACs and other outside groups spent millions on TV ads and direct mail to influence judicial contests. But voters rejected a series of expensive efforts to make courts accountable to partisans and special interests, the groups said.

In Iowa and Florida, voters turned back calls to unseat judges over their rulings, and voters in Missouri, Arizona and Florida rejected referenda intended to give politicians more power over the courts.

“The arms race around our courts is growing worse, but voters are seeing through campaigns to make courts more political and less impartial,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake.

“Judicial elections this year were characterized by attack ads, record-breaking spending, and outsized influence by special interests,” said Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.  “As judges face increased pressure to act like politicians, the integrity of our courts is at risk.”

Here are a few highlights from the analysis:

  • Spending on television advertisements in state supreme court races set an all-time record this year, totaling an estimated $27.8 million as of November 5, easily exceeding the record $24.4 million spent in 2004. Read more
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Opinion: Don’t Ignore Plot to ‘Hijack’ Florida Supreme Court

Charlie Crist, former governor of Florida, says a vote “yes” to retain Florida’s three Supreme Court Justices in the election will keep the state’s democracy safe. The campaign targeting the three justices is a “thinly veiled threat to democracy,” Crist says in a Tampa Bay Online opinion.

Justices R. Fred Lewis, Peggy Quince and Barbara Pariente are targeted in a November retention (yes-or-no) election by the Republican Party of Florida, which broke from tradition in taking a stand, and by a conservative activist group and the Americans for Prosperity organization. They are targeted for a few rulings in controversial cases.

Florida adopted a merit retention system to keep the judiciary a fair and impartial branch of government, Crist says. Now the state is party to a “carefully calculated strategy” to remove current justices so special interest groups can stack the bench with justices they prefer.

Crist argues that groups hoping to oust the justices are trying to convince Floridians to vote against them under false pretenses of “judicial activism.” The groups’ purpose is to “eliminate judges who dare stand up to powerful groups.”

By asking the executive branch to put partisan judges in place, these groups are violating the system of checks in balances in Florida, Crist says. Floridians cannot stand by and watch the state judiciary be “hijacked” by “power-hungry entities,” he argues. Read more

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