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New Website Focuses on Educating Public About our Judicial System

The Center for American Progress (CAP) launched a new website on Wednesday called whycourtsmatter.org. The website is intended to be a source of education for both policy makers and the general public about the function and significance of the judicial system.

Beyond providing information about judicial nominations and legal and policy analysis, the site also contains a section that enables people to petition their senators to work to fix the judicial vacancy crisis. This “Action Center” contains interactive tools that teach people how to communicate the importance of the judicial system to their senators.

According to a press release from CAP, the launch of the website is part of a larger campaign to facilitate grassroots activism around the judicial vacancy crisis by educating the public about the impact of the judicial system on public policy. Yesterday, the Brennan Center released a report addressing federal judicial vacancies and the resulting unprecedented workloads burdening federal district courts. Read more on Gavel Grab.

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Pennsylvania House of Representatives advanced a bill last week to increase the mandatory judicial retirement age from 70 to 75. The Pennsylvania Record reports that the bill is currently moving through the legislature even after the state Supreme Court struck down a bid by a group of judges in June to abolish the constitutional judicial retirement age.
  • Some may be surprised to find that the judges on the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are appointed exclusively by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a column for Bloomberg View, Ezra Klein contends that this gives the current Chief Justice—John Roberts—immense power to determine the nature of the country’s surveillance policies.

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has announced that Scott Harris will replace Will Suter as the new clerk of the court. According to The Blog of Legal Times, Harris has been the court’s in-house counsel since 2002.
  • The Pennsylvania Senate unanimously confirmed Correale Stevens to the state’s Supreme Court. The Associated Press reports that Stevens will fill the seat vacated by Joan Orie Melvin, who was recently convicted of public corruption.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement eight years ago this week. In an Op-ed for Yahoo! News, Kean University Professor Abigail Perkiss writes that O’Connor has used her retirement to prompt new conversations about the importance of diversity and political stability on the Court. O’Connor recently joined Justice at Stake as its First Honorary Chair.

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After Two Years, Arizona Still Considered a “Judicial Emergency”

In 2010, U.S. District Judge John Roll sought to have Arizona designated as a “judicial emergency” due to the extended period of time over which it had had a shortage of judges. In a letter to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, he described “a tsunami of federal felony cases far beyond the management capacity of the four active district judges in the Tucson division.”

Judge John Roll

Mere months later, on January 8, 2011, Roll was killed in the tragic shooting that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. His death exacerbated the state’s shortage of judges and in the view of some analysts, should have made the confirmation of more judges to the state’s bench a priority.

Yet according to an Arizona Republic editorial, today five of the thirteen federal district judgeships in Arizona remain vacant. And two years after she was nominated to the federal bench with the support of home-state Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, Rosemary Marquez has yet to have a confirmation hearing.

Despite an urgent need to fill the empty judgeships, the reality remains that judicial nominations are seen as a tool for partisan political maneuvers, the editorial contends.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts warned of this in 2010, saying “each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes.” This, he said, has become a “persistent problem” for the federal judiciary.

The editorial urges that the Senate respond to the judicial emergency in Arizona, and that it begin by voting on the nomination of Marquez.

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • U.S District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, a former chief judge of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, expressed frustration about the way that the court has been portrayed by the media in light of the recent leaks from NSA contractor Edward Snowden. According to The Washington Post, Kollar-Kotelly said that the implication that the judges were in collaboration with the Executive Branch and that FISC is a “rubber stamp” court does not reflect the court’s true nature.
  • A Republican-led push for nonpartisan judicial elections in Arkansas appears to be in conflict with the recent creation of a Republican PAC, Americans for Judicial Excellence, Max Brantley blogs in The Arkansas Times. He reports that AJE has already endorsed several overtly Republican candidates for the state’s Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.
  • Pennsylvania’s troubled court system has yet another issue to contend with: a feud between state Supreme Court Justices Ron Castile and Seamus McCaffery. Phillymag.com reports that the two have engaged in a vigorous back and forth that some say undermines the court’s ability to function effectively.

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Iowa Supreme Court announced Thursday that it has approved a budget that will expand the hours for clerk of court offices around the state. According to The Associated Press, the new budget will open up forty new clerk positions and will keep offices open Monday through Friday.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court could potentially take up a case addressing the newest battleground in reproductive rights: abortion-inducing drugs. The New York Times reports that by asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court Thursday to clarify a ruling that struck down a law banning the drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated its interest in potentially addressing the issue.
  • The highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court made an unprecedented step towards greater transparency last week. CNET reports that Reggie Walton, the presiding judge on the court, has offered to disclose procedural information concerning the data requests made to internet companies.

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • According to Minnesota Judge Frank Kundrat, many people know little about the court system or, what he calls, the “quiet third branch of government.” In a commentary for Echo Press, he attempts to rectify this by describing the different courts and roles of the state judicial system.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke yesterday at the dedication ceremony for the American Bar Association’s new D.C. office. According to The Blog of Legal Times, Ginsburg praised the association’s work promoting the equality of women in the law. The American Bar Association is a Justice at Stake partner organization.
  • Pennsylvania’s Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously recommended the highest ranking judge on the state superior court Thursday to take the place of disgraced ex-Justice Orie Melvin on the state Supreme Court. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that, if confirmed by the Senate, President Judge Correale F. Stevens will serve on the bench until 2016, and could run for election in November 2015 to serve longer.

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Northern District Court in CA Faces Dwindling Number of Black Judges

For the first time in two decades, California’s Northern District has just one African-American judge on the federal bench. This has minority bar groups and black lawyers concerned about the apparent declining diversity on a bench that was once one of the most racially diverse in the country. 

The judges who broke barriers years ago for minorities are gradually retiring or leaving the court, but no African-Americans have been nominated to take their place. Raymond Marshall, a member of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s judicial advisory committee and a partner at the law firm Bingham McCutchen said that the dwindling representation of black judges is definitely a concern.

“There is a heightened and increasing sensitivity to the need to maintain if not increase the presence of African-American judges on the bench,” he said. “It’s something that is clearly understood to be front and center.”

Yolanda Jackson, deputy executive director and diversity director of the Bar Association of San Francisco agrees: “We are very concerned about that steep drop in numbers,” she said. “There’s been a cycling off and we need to figure out how to get that momentum back.”  Read more

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Recalling retired judges to temporarily fill vacancies on the bench in Pennsylvania saved the state government $9.8 million over the past three years, according to the Administrative Offices of the Pennsylvania Courts. However, the Tribune-Democrat reports that some are raising questions about the practice’s constitutionality, because it circumvents voter retention elections.
  • The Washington state political-action committee Citizens for Judicial Excellence (CJE) has grown over the years to become a substantial force in municipal and district judicial elections. The Seattle Times reports that the group, which is composed entirely of DUI defense attorneys, has drawn criticism for giving defense attorneys too much power over influencing which judges they appear before in court.
  • The Court of Federal Claims has ruled that six federal judges who wrongly were refused cost-of-living salary adjustments will receive an average of $150,000 each in back pay, according to Courthouse News Service. For background on the underlying ruling last year from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, see Gavel Grab.
  • The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the 2010 conviction of internet radio-host Harold Turner. Reuters reports that Turner has been sentenced to 33 months in prison for writing “violent threats” against the judges on the Seventh U.S. District Court of Appeals.
  • This week the Florida Supreme Court temporarily suspended prosecutor Howard Scheinberg and may disbar Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner for excessive ex parte communications . The Huffington Post reports that an investigation by Florida’s Judicial Qualifications Committee found that the lawyer and judge exchanged 949 cell phone calls and 471 text messages over a period of 155 days during a trial.
  • Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett signed into law a bill last Wednesday that officially dismantles Philadelphia’s scandal-plagued traffic court. According to The Pennsylvania Record, the follows a federal investigation that uncovered a wide-spread ticket-fixing scandal, resulting in the indictment of nine traffic court judges. Read more about the Philadelphia Traffic Court’s history on Gavel Grab.

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Infinity Project: ‘Symbolism Matters’ for Court Legitimacy

According to Tulane Professor Sally Kenney, the scarcity of women in leadership positions in the courtroom is nothing short of gender discrimination.

Kenney is the founder of the Infinity Project, an organization that strives to promote gender diversity on the state and federal bench. According to The Gazette, she spoke as part of a panel at the Infinity Project’s annual meeting.  

Kenney said that the numbers point to a real problem for women in the judicial system. In Iowa, there are 274 males serving on Iowa district courts and only 93 female judges. The Iowa Supreme Court is now composed entirely of men. And she said this is not projected to change anytime soon: “Just because more women are going to law school doesn’t mean more women will become judges,” she said. “Symbolism matters for legitimacy of the courts – justice must be seen to be done.”

Other members of the panel agreed with Kenney. Former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell argued that the significance of the symbolism that Kinney mentioned is most problematic when judges don’t look like the community they represent.

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