Gavel Grab

Poll: Strong Support for Tougher Disclosure Laws for Judicial Campaigns

Four out of five voters back stronger disclosure laws for judicial campaigns in state elections, according to the Center for American Progress, which commissioned a new poll conducted by Harstad Strategic Research.

In 2012, a record-setting $29.7 million was spent on TV advertising to influence judicial contests across the nation, the Center said in relying on estimates from Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice, and half of that came from non-candidate groups.

Non-profit groups that often do not make public their donors were major spenders on the judicial elections, the Center said, and some states have been working to bring sunlight to hidden campaign contributions or go further and reform judicial elections to reduce the influence of campaign cash.

In Montana, disclosure advocates in the legislature are pushing a ballot measure for greater disclosure. It would require any entities that make expenditures to influence campaigns in the state to disclose that spending and their financial backers (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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JAS Supports Immigration Bill Amendment on Court Funding

With an eye on bipartisan immigration reform legislation before the Senate, Justice at Stake has voiced its support for an amendment proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would provide funding to support new costs incurred by the judiciary.

“[W]e must ensure that the courts have the resources to do what the legislation might require, including the adjudication of thousands of additional applications for citizenship,” wrote Praveen Fernandes, acting JAS director of policy and advocacy, in a letter to congressional leaders. “Quite simply, the judiciary wants the resources necessary to faithfully discharge its duties under the Constitution and all federal laws, including any duties entailed by the passage of new laws.”

Earlier this week, Gavel Grab mentioned  support for the amendment from the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The amendment “would authorize funds from the Comprehensive Immigration Trust Fund to be used to support any additional obligations that the Judiciary might face as a result of passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation,” Fernandes wrote.

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IAALS Report Sheds Light on Bankruptcy Judge Selection

The Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) has published a new report that was undertaken to shed light on the process for selecting federal bankruptcy judges. IAALS is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

The report is entitled, “A Credit to the Courts: The Selection, Appointment, and Reappointment Process for Bankruptcy Judges.” Its introduction says a “merit selection panel” is used to recommend candidates, in a fashion similar to that used in a number of states for selecting judges, and that federal appellate court judges ultimately choose the bankruptcy judges. This process gets good reviews, it says:

“Our research for this project included interviews with merit selection panel members, court of appeals judges, and bankruptcy judges, and these individuals were unanimous in praising the products of the selection process. According to a chief district court judge who has chaired several merit selection panels, ‘It’s worked really well. When you look at the new judges we have, they are a stellar group.’ A circuit court judge who often chairs screening panels also offered her endorsement of the selection process: ‘The system we’ve used over the last twenty years has gotten some really good judges.’ A now-chief bankruptcy judge who has been on the bench for more than two decades summed it up: ‘They generally pick the best person, and it truly is merit selection. I’m proud of the way bankruptcy judges are selected. To me it is the best merit selection process we have.’”

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Article Examines Factors in Withdrawn Bid to Save NC Public Financing

A legislator who sought to rescue North Carolina’s public financing program for judicial elections with a House amendment, which he subsequently withdrew, has explained what happened behind the scenes.

Last week, there were media reports that Republican Rep. Jonathan Jordan (photo) sponsored an amendment that would have funded the program only through attorneys fees, while eliminating another funding stream — from a check-off on state income tax forms (see Gavel Grab). After Jordan was spotted in conversation with Art Pope, the governor’s budget director, outside the House chamber, the legislator withdrew his amendment and the House proceeded to a vote to eliminate funding for the program.

This week, Jordan talked to the Jefferson Post newspaper. He had gone to bat for two clean-election groups, Common Cause and the North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, to craft the compromise amendment, Jordan said. “I do see the difference in public campaign finance for judicial races versus special interest and corporate money,” he explained.

Jordan said the groups indicated to him there was tacit approval by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, for the middle-road amendment. Then he ran into stiff resistance on the House floor. He  also had the visit with Pope, who Jordan said informed him that not only would McCrory not accept any public campaign financing, but that use of attorneys fees for the purpose would be unconstitutional, a view Pope claimed was backed by case law.

“I felt left out in the wind,” Jordan told the newspaper. He decided not to pursue his amendment. Read more

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Obama to Nominate Prosecutor for Long-Vacant Judgeship in N.C.

President Obama announced on Thursday that he will soon nominate prosecutor Jennifer Prescod May-Parker to fill the country’s longest-standing vacancy in the federal district courts. The court—North Carolina’s Eastern District—has had an empty seat for over seven years, earning it the designation of “judicial emergency” from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer reports that, if confirmed, May-Parker would become the Eastern District Court’s first African-American judge and one of only two sitting black federal judges in the state.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC), who originally recommended May-Parker for the position in 2009, applauded the president’s decision: “This seat has been open for far too long, and I’m pleased that we finally have a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina,” Hagan said in a statement. “North Carolina’s population is almost one-quarter African-American, yet we have only one African-American judge at the federal district court level. Increasing diversity on the federal bench should be a priority.”

It is unclear why the seat has remained vacant for so long. According to Star News, some speculate that race may have been a factor in the delay. The NAACP, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), and others have been pressuring Obama to nominate an African-American to the district, which is over 25% black. However, no official explanation for the delay has been released.

Those who know May-Parker commended her work as a federal prosecutor. U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker, May-Parker’s colleague in the office of the Eastern District of North Carolina, praised her nomination: “Jennifer is well respected for her legal expertise, her judgment and her moral character,” Walker said. “She is a daily example of what it means to be a true public servant.”

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Secretive Surveillance Court Questioned on Independence, Diversity

The secretive court getting new scrutiny in the wake of disclosures about government Internet and telephone data-gathering has counted 12 Republicans among its 14 judges this year, Reuters reports.

Yet judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “also have issued orders in public cases that belie their conservative, law-enforcement roots, sometimes ruling against the government in terrorism-related cases,” Reuters says in its intriguing portrait of the members of the Washington, D.C.-based court.

The article includes comments by experts who question the bench’s diversity and the direction of its evolution over 35 years. The judges are chosen from trial courts around the country by the chief justice of the United States.

“Since [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] was enacted in 1978, we’ve had three chief justices, and they have all been conservative Republicans, so I think one can worry that there is insufficient diversity,” Stephen Vladeck of American University’s Washington College of Law told Reuters. Read more

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Echoing O’Connor, Editorial Urges Judicial Selection Reform in PA

A good way to battle a popular perception that judges “are just politicians in robes” would be for Pennsylvania legislators to switch from judicial elections to a merit-based selection system, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial says in echoing retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Addressing the Philadelphia Bar Association recently, Justice O’Connor called it a “serious problem that people in this country think of judges as politicians in robes” (see Gavel Grab). The editorial concurs:

That is precisely the problem with electing judges. The people who support them with money are often the lawyers, special interest groups or others who may appear before them in court. Politicians and some of their supporters don’t think there is anything wrong with this cozy situation so fraught with potential conflicts of interest.

“Yet Pennsylvanians happy with the status quo have no excuse — not with a prime example of politician-judges recently thrust upon them. The public corruption charges that led to Joan Orie Melvin’s downfall from the state Supreme Court had to do with her use of court resources for political campaigning. The disgraced justice was the epitome of the robed politician.” Read more

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McCain: Hold Up-or-Down Votes on D.C. Circuit Nominees

President Obama’s three new nominees for a highly influential appeals court deserve up-or-down votes, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said, according to a Legal Newsline article.

His stance is notable because McCain is a former GOP presidential nominee, and he apparently departs from the approach taken by some leading Senate Republicans, who contend the court at issue — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — should be reduced by three authorized judgeships.

Meanwhile Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., detailed in a Bangor Daily News op-ed her reasons for supporting the court-shrinking measure. She said partisan politics was not her motivation, in response to an op-ed in the same newspaper that had criticized her (see Gavel Grab).

Collins added, “While I support the reallocation of [D.C. Circuit] seats to other circuits because of the workload, I do recognize the unfortunate reality that this bill is not likely to pass a democratically controlled Senate. I will, therefore, assess each nominee to the D.C. Circuit whom the president sends to the Senate on his or her merits.” Read more

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Ginsburg: Women on the Supreme Court No Longer ‘Curiosities’

Even justices of the U.S. Supreme Court grapple with sexism in the workplace.

At a panel hosted by the Historical Society of the D.C. Circuit, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described how when she was first appointed to the court, she was frequently confused with the other woman justice on the bench, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “The idea of two was just too much to contemplate,” she said.

The Blog of Legal Times reports that other panelists said that Ginsburg’s experiences were not an anomaly. Now retired Judge Patricia Wald described how she faced increased scrutiny because of her gender when she became chief justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1986. Even today, Wald said, women are underrepresented in court leadership. Panelist Michele Roberts, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and a veteran defense lawyer, shared how she had had to deal with clients who were upset that they were to be defended by a woman lawyer and with opponents who had a tendency to underestimate her abilities in the courtroom.

Despite the obstacles that women face in the courtroom, Ginsburg seemed sanguine about the future of women in the courts. “We are not longer one-at-a-time curiosities,” she said, referring to the fact that now three women serve as justices on the Supreme Court.

When asked how many women justices on the court would be “enough,” Ginsburg replied, “When there are nine.”

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Illinois Senator Dick Durbin released a letter Tuesday urging U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to do a live broadcast of the court’s three major controversial opinion announcements. The Blog of Legal Times reports that audio recordings of the court’s opinion announcements are typically not released to the public until several months have passed, but Durbin is calling for the court to make an exception for these large cases, saying, “The Court’s opinions in these cases will impact millions of individuals and the collective fabric of American life.”
  • Jim Holshouser, former governor of North Carolina and one of the most outspoken defenders of public financing for judicial campaigns died Monday at age 78. The Associated Press reports that Holshouser was North Carolina’s first Republican governor of the 20th century and that he was active in public life until just a few weeks before his death.
  • Oklahoma attorney Tony Massad has been awarded the Sovereignty Symposium Award for his efforts for judicial reform. The Frederick Press-Leader reports that Massad was honored at a ceremony attended by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for creating legislation that gave Oklahoma a new method of selecting appellate judges.

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