Two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices contacted state legislators earlier this year to signal support for a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the Chief Justice is selected. Justice Patricia Roggensack, one of the two who voiced support, could benefit from the change.
The (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel reported the developments, saying it is permissible for justices to lobby the legislature “but doing so runs the risk of deepening an already yawning rift on the court.”
Wisconsin’s chief justice currently is Shirley Abrahamson. Democrats and Republicans have divided over the legislation. Democrats contend the action is aimed at removing Justice Abrahamson, who has held the post for 17 years. Republicans say it would be better to have the Supreme Court’s members choose the Chief Justice, rather than have the justice with the greatest seniority hold the top post, as is now the law. Read more
The U.S. Senate is poised to vote on confirming veteran attorney Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. An up-or-down vote, now expected Tuesday, would be the first judicial confirmation vote since senators exercised a controversial maneuver called the “nuclear option” to eliminate filibusters of most judicial nominees.
Before the rules change, Senate Republicans had blocked up-or-down votes on Millett and two other nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court, as the highly influential appeals court is commonly called.
While the rules change allowed Democrats to overcome partisan opposition on Millett’s nomination, other delaying tools are available to Republicans. One of the leading means involves a Senate tradition, under which both home-state senators must signal their consent by giving “blue slips” before the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a confirmation hearing on a judicial nominee.
According to a McClatchy-Tribune article, Republicans hold at least one Senate seat in 31 states, and a number of Republicans have been invoking the stalling tool by withholding “blue slip” agreement for a confirmation hearing. In Arizona, two senators have wielded it although they recommended certain individuals earlier for judgeships.
As backers tour Minnesota to promote a proposed merit selection plan for choosing state judges, not only the plan’s content, but its unusual array of backers, is making news.
James H. Manahan, a former Minnesota Judicial Selection Commission member, writes favorably in the Lake County News-Chronicle about the proposal and gets into detail about its supporters:
“The AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce. The League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the Bar Association. Former governors Al Quie (R), Wendell Anderson (D), and Arne Carlson (R). Former Chief Justices Kathleen Blatz, Sandy Keith, and Eric Magnuson, along with Justice Alan Page. All the big businesses in Minnesota (3M, Best Buy, BC/BS, Cargill, General Mills, Target, Medtronic, Microsoft, Xcel Energy).”
The convergence of these groups at a recent education session in Duluth was “pretty amazing,” Manahan writes.
The proposed constitutional amendment would combine merit selection of judges, retention (up-or-down) elections and nonpartisan evaluation of judges’ performance by an independent performance evaluation commission (see Gavel Grab).
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, whose saga of being targeted by big special interest spending in a judicial election has captured widespread attention, was to address a Wisconsin audience on Monday. In the run-up to his speech, WUWM radio aired a report saying Wisconsin’s judicial elections are among the nation’s nastiest and citing Justice at Stake as its source.
The “New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12″ report featured Wisconsin’s court elections as a case study, WUWM recounted, and the report “says the politicization and influence of outside money is undermining public confidence in the court.”
“When people have a perception that justice can be bought or sold, it undermines the whole system of our courts – our system of impartial justice,” former Justice Diaz says. His story has been told in a documentary and it inspired a novel by John Grisham.
The “New Politics” report was recently released by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
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