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Progress Toward Diversity in Maryland Courts Continues

After naming the first woman to lead the first female majority on the Maryland Supreme Court, Governor Martin O’Malley is once again diversifying the bench.  The appointees for the Baltimore City District Court had initially been recommended to O’Malley by the trial court judicial nominating commission and were announced on Tuesday.  They reflect a commitment to appointing judges who reflect Maryland’s population in race, gender, and sexual orientation. reported on the announcement and quoted Governor O’Malley.  “I am pleased to appoint such an accomplished and diverse group of candidates to serve on the Baltimore City District Court,… These appointees will bring to the bench a broad range of legal expertise and a true commitment to public service.”  The announcement was also reported on in an piece, which notes that no date has been set for these judgeships to begin, as each appointee is taking time to make arrangements to finish their current positions.

Justice at Stake is currently engaged in a five-year judicial diversity pilot project to build a pipeline for future judges of diverse backgrounds, and to encourage fairness in judicial selection in Maryland as well as in other states.  Deputy Director for Federal Affairs and Diversity Initiatives, Liz Fujii spoke about these projects and reactions to progress in other states in this video.

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Bringing Diversity to the Bench: A Chief Justice’s Personal View

This past July, Mary Rhodes Russell began her two-year term as Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.  In an interview with the Missouri Times, Justice Russell discusses interpretation of laws, public education on court issues and her career as a judge.  When asked about her transition from lawyer to judge, she notes the unlikelihood of her professional trajectory from her own perspective.

“…[I]t simply wasn’t dreamable for a girl to be a judge… I didn’t know much about how that process worked and didn’t think a girl from Hannibal could compete with big name lawyers from St. Louis. But of course I was interested and I tried and the rest, I guess, is history.

When asked if being a woman brings a different perspective to the court, Justice Russell addresses the reality of different perspectives. “Everybody walks in different shoes,” she says. And she believes diversity strengthens our courts overall:  “I think it’s important for the courts to look like the people they represent. I think that if the courts don’t have diversity we lose our strength.”

Justice at Stake, in coordination with its partners, is engaged in a five-year multi-state effort to promote diversity on the state bench by building the pipeline of people of color, women, and members of the LGBT community who are potential judges, and encouraging transparency and inclusion in judicial selection. Justice at Stake’s Deputy Director of Federal Affairs & Diversity Initiatives, Liz Fujii spoke about Justice Russell’s interview and work being done to further promote a more diverse bench, in a video here.

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Justice O’Connor Promotes Civics Education to Bolster Fair Courts

Speaking to a conference of state legislators, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor discussed the importance of improving civics education in public schools in order to help reduce the politicization of courts.  Addressing the session of the National Conference of State Legislatures, O’Connor emphasized the detrimental effect of money and special interests in judicial elections:

“Judicial elections powered by money and special interests create the impression, rightly and wrongly, that judges are accountable to money and to special interests, not the law …While we expect other elected officials to take the views of their campaign supporters into account, our judges should never be or shouldn’t be seen to be beholden to any constituency.”

O’Connor recently joined Justice at Stake as its first Honorary Chair.

The Associated Press reported on O’Connor discussing iCivics, a website she created that features lesson plans and online games.  O’Connor believes that improving an understanding of the role of judges and the judicial branch, and starting at an earlier age, helps create a more knowledgeable and responsible citizenry that can combat politicization of the courts.

Justice at Stake also recognizes the importance of civics education, and has created a program titled Our Courts America with the new website, to help people understand the role of the courts and the importance of supporting them.  Resources will be provided to help judges, lawyers, and community leaders have access to the tools needed for organizing civic education programs.

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Federal Public Defenders Speak Out Against Justice Sequestered

The across-the-board budget cuts of federal sequestration are having a big impact on federal public defenders’ offices across the nation.  With further cuts looming to take place in the fast-approaching 2014 fiscal year, more public defenders are speaking out.

This past April, Gavel Grab covered Steve Nolder’s decision to fire himself from his position as the director of the public defender’s office in southern Ohio.  Nolder has now written about his experience for Justice Watch, from the Alliance for Justice, in a piece titled “Why I fired myself.”  In it he details his decision-making process, particularly in the ways his decision would help keep his junior staff employed after severe budget cuts.

“My Administrative Officer told me early on that these budget projections meant I was going to be forced to eliminate staff as that was, by far, our biggest expense. I resisted this thought because we had the caseload to justify our staff and we were otherwise good stewards of the public’s money… Over time, however, I came to accept that her assessment was spot-on as the sequester was applied across the board and was blind to the needs and unique circumstances of its targets.”

Jonathan Hawley, a chief federal public defender from Illinois, also commented on the effect of sequestration in the (Peoria)  Journal Star.  Two attorneys and one computer information specialist have been let go from Hawley’s office, with more positions expected to be lost as budget cuts continue.  Not only have legal workloads increased, Hawley now runs his office’s website and manages computer problems.

If you have a story about why court funding matters, share it with us here:

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Legal Newsline wrote about the new Fair Courts Litigation Task Force website.  The Task Force, made up of Justice at Stake and partner organizations, will use to track litigation that could impact the fairness of the U.S. court system.  Justice at Stake Acting Executive Director Liz Seaton is quoted saying, “Fair and impartial courts safeguard people’s rights and decide business cases that keep our economy moving forward, but we must be vigilant about protecting them.”
  • The federal court for northern Illinois is making changes to its jury selection process to ensure that jury pools will more accurately reflect the region’s ethnic and racial diversity.  The Associated Press reports on court plans to draw names from drivers’ license and voter registration lists.  This is a shift away from using voter registration lists alone, a practice criticized as leading to the under-representation of minorities.  The changes are part of an effort by the district’s first Hispanic judge, Ruben Castillo (see Gavel Grab).
  • The Madison-St. Clair (Ill.) Record is reporting on a decrease in the number of local judicial races expected in the 2014 election cycle.  While there will be fewer races, The Illinois Civil Justice League is planning weekly updates on judicial election news.
  • Failed judicial nominee Michael McCarthy, along with the Massachusetts Governor’s Councilor Michael Albano and former Councilor Mary-Ellen Manning, are suing Gov. Deval Patrick. is covering McCarthy’s claims that he was confirmed to the bench but deprived of his office by the governor and Secretary of State William Galvin.

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Retired Judge Patricia Wald to Receive Medal of Freedom

Retired Judge Patricia Wald, the first female judge appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, will receive the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.  Wald along with 15 other medal winners will be honored at a White House ceremony later this year.  The Blog of Legal Times noted that she was one of 11 women in her class at Yale University Law School and in 1952, was the first female associate hired at Arnold, Fortas & Porter.

The White House announcement described Wald as “one of the most respected appellate judges of her generation.”  She is highly commended for her 20 years of service on the D.C. Circuit Court, where she was chief judge from 1986-1991, and for her current work as a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  Wald will be honored this year alongside other winners that include former president Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and country music legend Loretta Lynn.

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Justice at Stake helped organize an event hosted by the ABA Standing Committee on Diversity in the Judiciary at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco this week.  The event, titled, “The Experts Speak: Navigating the Path to the Federal Bench,” was designed to demystify judicial career pathways.  Justice at Stake’s Director of Federal Affairs and Diversity Initiatives Praveen Fernandes is pictured with the Diversity Committee Chair Judge Toni Clarke.
  • Today, Justice at Stake was cosponsoring an event by the ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements and the Standing Committee on Judicial Independence entitled “Are Courts Dying? The Decline of Open and Public Adjudication.”
  • The New York Times published an Opinionator blog piece related to debate over Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court appointments.  The piece, entitled “Too Much Work?” mentions the U.S. Chief Justice’s role in naming FISC judges, and goes further to ask whether the Chief Justice has too broad a mandate overall.  It was written by Linda Greenhouse.

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Shrinking Budgets Force Courts to Reduce Hours or Shut Doors

Courthouses across the country are restricting hours or shutting down completely in an effort to save money in a time of tight budgets.  In California, 77 courthouses are closing their doors, and others are reducing their public service hours.  NPR reported on this trend and spotlighted the Fresno County Superior Court’s courthouse in Coalinga, California.

The Coalinga courthouse once had a full-time judge and trials before juries.  Then court officials restricted the types of cases heard there, and later, visiting judges took the place of the full-time judge.  The courthouse has now been closed for a year as a result of budget cuts.  Where a courtroom podium once stood, a television now hangs  for traffic court via video streaming.  All small claims cases and criminal arraignments are dealt with over an hour away in Fresno, resulting in travel expenses that cost the Coalinga police department about $25,000 last year.

In NPR’s reporting, residents and decision makers discussed the court closing.  While one resident discussed the loss of an “American experience,” a local business owner is quoted saying that “I haven’t seen a huge loss with it not being here.”  It is clear that diminishing services have limited access to justice.  Gavel Grab has been following court funding issues closely; to follow these issues on Gavel Grab, click here.

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Brennan Center for Justice is arguing that a lower court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission should be affirmed and aggregate campaign contribution limits should be upheld.  Legal Newsline reported on an amicus brief that The Brennan Center filed with the U.S. Supreme court. The Brennan Center is a partner organization of Justice at Stake.
  • Former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Marsha Ternus will be the new director of the Tom Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement.  Ternus was one of three justices who failed to win a retention vote in 2010 after a controversial state Supreme Court decision about marriage. reported on her new post and noted that she was Iowa’s first female chief justice.
  • Deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens of Minnesota will have greater access to the state court system thanks to a new 20-minute video titled “Going to Court: Tips for Minnesotans who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.”  The video, which is in American Sign Language and features captions, was created by the Minnesota Judicial Branch, according to an Associated Press article.
  • reported on the prison sentence of Dejvid Mirkovic, an ex-Marine who plotted to kill and decapitate a federal judge in Long Island.  U.S. District Judge John Keenan imposed the sentence and stated that “This is the most serious crime that can be contemplated, because it strikes right at the heart of our judicial system…”

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Senate Confirms New Judge for the Federal Circuit Court

A new Federal Circuit judge was confirmed this week.  A unanimous Senate confirmed Raymond Chen to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.  Chen has been the deputy general counsel for intellectual property law and solicitor for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since 2008.  In this role he has represented the agency in appeals and more than 20 argued cases before the Federal Circuit.

As the Blog of Legal Times notes, the Federal Circuit has national jurisdiction and covers cases relating to patent and trademark disputes, international trade and veterans’ claims.  Five months ago, Richard Tanto became the first new judge on the Federal Circuit in 17 months.  Todd Hughes, the Department of Justice’s deputy director of the commercial litigation branch of the civil division is awaiting a full Senate confirmation vote.  If he passes, he would be the first openly gay federal appeals court judge. (see Gavel Grab).

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