A Wealth of Opinion on SCOTUS Vacancy and Its Impact

n-SUPREME-COURT-large570As confrontation continues over filling the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, analysts continue to weigh in on  the vacancy and its implications for the Court.

Blogging for the Center for American Progress, Jake Faleschini and Billy Corriher write that a long vacancy without a replacement would likely result in a number of 4-4 splits on the Court in controversial cases.  Such an outcome would allow lower court rulings to stand in those cases. Meanwhile, political scientist Alicia Uribe argues in Vox that President Obama would increase his chances of having his next Supreme Court nominee confirmed if he chooses from the ranks of the lower federal courts. And a columnist for the Boston Globe  argues that the kind of “political mud fight” that erupted over Justice Scalia’s replacement could be avoided if Supreme Court justices were term-limited instead of having life tenure.

Justice at Stake has warned against the politicization of the nomination process for Justice Scalia’s successor. In a statement, Executive Director Susan Liss said, “All sides must respect the dignity of the constitutional process, which is the best way to honor Justice Scalia’s memory and serve the American people.”(See Gavel Grab.)

Commentary: Bill Would Return ‘Rotten Political System’ to OK Courts

In a commentary piece for the NONDOC news website, Oklahoma attorney Cullen Sweeney warns that a measure being weighed in the state legislature has the potential to bring back the “bad old days” of corruption in the state’s courts.

The piece is headlined “HJR 1037: Return of Oklahoma’s ‘Rotten political system,’” and in it, he writes that the bill in question “would amend the Oklahoma Constitution by abolishing the Judicial Nominating Commission and returning Oklahoma to the old system of popularly electing all appeals-court judges.”

Oklahoma’s longstanding merit system was instituted in the wake of bribery scandals on its Supreme Court that were so egregious they became legendary. Sweeney cites the example of one judge, Nelson Corn:  “When the elderly jurist was asked by investigators whether there was any year out of his three decades on the Oklahoma Supreme Court in which he did not take a bribe, he dismissively snapped, ‘Well, I don’t know!’”

Justice at Stake opposes a transition away from merit selection in Oklahoma, and in a statement warned that such a switch would “turn back the clock.” (See Gavel Grab.)

Kansas Court’s Schools Ruling Is Latest in Ongoing Controversy

welcome-to-kansasIn a much-watched case, the Kansas Supreme Court has given the state until June 30 to enact an “equitable” school funding formula or risk shutdown of all the state’s public schools, according to the Kansas City Star.  The ruling in the case known as Gannon v. Kansas finds that the state has not equitably distributed funding among school districts, unfairly disadvantaging poor schools.

In a statement, the pro-courts group Kansans for Fair Courts applauded the Court, which it said has “protected kids” and the Constitution, and urged legislators to “do their job.”  

Education funding has been a source of ongoing acrimony between the state Supreme Court and the Brownback administration and its legislative allies for years.  As the Court in 2014 was ordering state lawmakers to fix unequal funding among school districts, a flurry of measures erupted to curtail Court authority and funding, and were described by critics as “political payback.”  (See Gavel Grab.) (more…)

JAS: Oklahoma Anti-Merit Measure Would ‘Turn Back the Clock’

Oklahoma flagThe Associated Press reports that justices on Oklahoma’s “highest appellate courts would be elected, not appointed, under a plan narrowly approved by a House committee.”  Justice at Stake responded with a statement pointing out that Oklahoma instituted merit selection for its highest courts starting in 1967, as a good-government measure meant to address a corruption scandal on the state’s Supreme Court.

“Oklahoma made a deliberate decision to choose appellate judges through merit selection beginning in 1967 after scandals surrounded three state Supreme Court justices,” Justice at Stake Interim Executive Director Liz Seaton said in the statement. “Anyone who thinks that contested elections are inherently a better way to choose judges needs to check the facts; judicial elections increasingly involve hardball politics, special interest spending and candidates for the bench dialing for dollars. Why turn back the clock now?”

According to the AP, the Oklahoma House Elections and Ethics Committee voted 4-3 on Wednesday to advance the measure to the House floor.


Opposition to Judicial Election Proposal in Hawaii

Following the Hawaii state Senate’s hearing on proposals that would do away with merit selection for the state’s judges and justices, a number of local organizations have come out against a switch to contested elections for those judges.

According to a report on the HawaiiNewsNow website, “A coalition of lawyers, judges and civil rights advocates came out in force Wednesday to try to shoot down a proposal to join 22 other states and allow Hawaii voters to elect judges.”

Janet Mason, of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, was quoted saying, “A criminal defendant or a litigant in a civil case needs to know that his or her case will be decided by a judge whose loyalty is to the law, and whose integrity will not be compromised by campaign finance or political pressures.”

Justice at Stake issued a statement opposing the proposed switch to elections, saying such a switch would be “a tremendous disservice” to Hawaiians. (See Gavel Grab.)

JAS Op-ed: Hit Series ‘Making a Murderer’ Ignores Judicial Elections

In an opinion piece published in the Wisconsin State Journal, Justice at Stake Senior Policy Counsel Scott Greytak (right) takes on the hit Netflix series “Making a Murderer” and its scathing commentary on the criminal justice system.

“While the series presents a real-life courtroom drama to a mass audience,” Greytak writes, “the debate it has fostered about criminal justice is grossly incomplete because it overlooks the enormous impact of judicial elections.”

He goes on to question whether Wisconsin’s expensive, partisan Supreme Court elections could survive the same level of scrutiny the filmmakers brought to police and prosecutorial conduct in the show.

“The solution is clear: merit-based, nonpartisan, appointive systems for choosing judges,” Greytak concludes. “Any serious conversation about criminal justice reform must include eliminating judicial elections.”

Column Blasts Disciplinary Process for State Judge

New York Daily News columnist Shaun King, in a strongly worded commentary, blasts as racially biased a disciplinary proceeding under way in Kentucky and focusing on Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens. Stevens, who is African-American, is facing a “highly secretive, all-white, Judicial Conduct Commission” according to King.  “In a cruel twist of fate, Stevens, who became nationally known for striking down all-white juries with black defendants, is now going to appear before an exclusively white commission himself,” King writes.

King is unsparing in his criticism of what he describes as “the double standard” being applied, as well as “the ridiculousness of having an all-white panel playing such an important role in 2016.”

Stevens is facing disciplinary action for discussing the issue of all-white juries on his Facebook page.  According to reports, Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr., in referring the case to the disciplinary body, wrote that Stevens “appears to flout the directives of the Code of Judicial Conduct, creating a social-media firestorm calculated to aggrandize himself by exploiting the deep-seated and widespread distrust of the criminal-justice system by minority communities.”


Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • NewsChannel 5 in Nashville reports that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has named Appeals Judge Roger A. Page to fill a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court created by the retirement of Justice Gary Wade. 

Fundraising Already Under Way for Montana’s Supreme Court Race

Following a contentious Supreme Court election in 2014, Montana is already seeing fundraising for its primary and general Supreme Court elections this year.  That fundraising started in 2015, according to The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.  Describing his campaign donors as being across the political spectrum, one candidate said, “With the increasing politicization of these races in the last couple of cycles it’s important to go out and get diverse support,” according to the report.

Montana’s 2014 judicial election was highlighted in Justice at Stake’s recent report on judicial politics, Bankrolling the Bench. The state saw record-breaking spending as national groups including the Republican State Leadership Committee and Americans for Prosperity poured nearly $550,000 into the race.

‘Don’t Mix Politics with Judges’ in Oklahoma

In a strongly worded op-ed for the Tulsa World, Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission member Steve Turnbo argues that the state’s merit selection system “is not broken, despite comments to the contrary by a few politicians.” Turnbo, who was appointed by Gov. Mary Fallin, writes that his two years on the commission “have made me proud to serve and even prouder of my fellow commission members who take their job seriously and gladly donate their time to vetting and recommending judicial candidates to the governor.”

Turnbo points out that the state’s merit selection system was created in response to a series of judicial scandals in an era when all judges in the state were elected. “Plenty of opportunity existed for cutting deals and individual ‘power brokers’ to act unethically or illegally” under the previous system, he writes.  Calling that period a “disgraceful” time for the state, Turnbo writes that the merit system that followed is “efficient, independent, and has stood the test of time.”

“Some complain that electing judges is the more efficient methodology. I disagree,” Turnbo maintains. “An election process embracing campaign contributions and political party affiliation will certainly erode public confidence and incentivize partisan politics.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has drawn criticism from some quarters for recent rulings, resulting in a debate over the state’s judicial selection process (see Gavel Grab).