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State Judge Sues Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission

Judge Olu Stevens, an African-American jurist in Jefferson County, Kentucky, filed a lawsuit on Friday against the state Judicial Conduct Commission, contending it intends to punish him in violation of his First Amendment rights, according to a WDRB report.

As Gavel Grab mentioned in January, 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.”

In the lawsuit, according to WDRB, Stevens said Kentucky “has a history of racism within its criminal justice system and jury selection system” and a lack of jury diversity has “remained unaddressed” by prosecutors. Read more

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‘Hardball Politics’ Driving Nomination Blockade: Editorial

The difficulty facing the Supreme Court when its eight justices are equally divided (see Gavel Grab) continues to provide grist for editorial boards urging a thaw in the Senate Republican freeze on considering nominee Merrick Garland.

“The justices are obviously having trouble doing one of their most important jobs — settling disputes over the law and the Constitution when lower courts disagree,” cautioned a USA Today editorial.

“The court shouldn’t have to limp on for another year without a tie-breaking justice so Senate Republicans can stick to their partisan pledge not to consider President Obama’s nomination to succeed Scalia. Republicans claim this is high-minded principle — let the people speak when they elect a new president in November — but that’s sanctimonious claptrap. This is just hardball politics.”

In other recent coverage and commentary, a Baltimore Sun editorial was headlined, “The Supreme Court vacancy is just the tip of the iceberg”; The Des Moines Register reported, “Grassley leads slowdown of judicial confirmations”; and Alicia Bannon wrote at the website of the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner organization, “A Supreme Breakdown.”

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N.Y. Times Spotlights Partisan Attacks to Reshape Courts, Cites JAS

New-York-Times-logoAcross the nation, court decisions are coming under partisan attack whether in judicial elections or attempts by politicians to reshape courts to their liking, The New York Times reports from Kansas, virtually a ground zero of these attacks:

“TOPEKA, Kan. — Washington is locked in partisan warfare over control of the Supreme Court. But it is hardly the only place. Look at the states, where political attacks on judicial decisions are common and well-financed attack ads are starting to jar the once-sleepy elections for State Supreme Court seats.”

In Topeka, the article zeroes in on an effort to broaden the grounds for impeaching Kansas Supreme Court justices (see Gavel Grab) and expected efforts to dump in retention (up-or-down) elections this fall four justices “regarded as moderate or liberal.” The article also touches on big spending in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race under way — quoting Justice at Stake and Brennan Center for Justice ad spending data — and in Pennsylvania last year, a political assault on the Georgia Supreme Court and an expansion measure labeled by critics as “court-packing” in Georgia: Read more

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AP Features JAS Warning on Costly, Politicized Court Races

Wisconsin_flag_mapDespite facing a flood of negative TV advertising, Court of Appeals JoAnne Kloppenburg is sticking close in a recent poll to opponent Justice Rebecca Bradley in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election, the Associated Press reported, using Justice at Stake ad-tracking data.

“High-priced, politicized judicial elections are no way to build fair and impartial courts,” the AP quoted JAS Executive Director Susan Liss as saying.

The election will be held Tuesday. TV ad spending was approaching $2.7 million when JAS and the Brennan Center for Justice documented totals earlier this week; TV ad contract purchases by the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, backing Bradley, totaled about $1.54 million and those by the Greater Wisconsin Committee, supporting Kloppenburg, at least $345,000.

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Arkansas Court Sets Up Panel to Study Judicial Selection Reform

Add the Arkansas Supreme Court to those intent on studying whether to change the way the state’s top judges are chosen. A committee of justices is the latest planning to explore possible reform “after a pair of state Supreme Court races that were overshadowed by record breaking spending from outside conservative groups,” the Associated Press said.

Earlier this month the Arkansas Bar Association set up a panel to study reform (see Gavel Grab), and this week a state Senate committee held a hearing on the topic (click here for Gavel Grab).

At a blog of The Arkansas Times, Max Brantley took a skeptical view of the announced Supreme Court study. At The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, an editorial suggested that while proponents and opponents debate about replacing judicial elections with merit selection, faster and fuller disclosure of judicial election donors.

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Scholar Imagines ‘Worst Case’ Scenario About 4-4 Court Tie

As the specter of more 4-4 ties on the Supreme Court is suggested by the news media, election law professor Joshua Douglas asks this question about an admittedly remote possibility: “What if eight justices must decide the election?”

The University of Kentucky law professor’s piece with that title was published by The (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal. Douglas says if a case reached the Supreme Court, and if the high court tied, “then a lower court – say an elected state supreme court in a battleground state – would essentially decide the presidential election.” All of this he describes as a “worst case scenario,” as he urges that the Senate consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

So far, Senate Republican leaders have not budged in their refusal to consider the nomination. USA Today reports, meanwhile, “Supreme Court struggles with just eight justices,” and a Washington Post editorial is headlined, “The Supreme Court needs a ninth justice immediately.” You can learn from Gavel Grab about what happened recently when the court was evenly split.

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JAS: Combined Outside Spending Dominates in WI Court Race Air Wars

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdTwo outside groups are dominating spending in the air wars preceding the Wisconsin Supreme Court election on April 5, with their combined buys adding up to at least $1,881,025 overall, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said on Thursday.

Total TV ad spending (in the primary and general election combined) has reached at least $2,688,306, JAS and the Brennan Center said in a joint analysis, with these totals for the current participants: Justice Rebecca Bradley’s campaign, booking contracts worth at least $223,350; Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg’s campaign, $441,426; the Wisconsin Alliance for Reform, with advertising in support of Bradley, $1,535,595; and Greater Wisconsin Committee, in support of Kloppenburg, $345,430. Another candidate was eliminated in the primary.

“The deluge of special-interest money flowing into Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race is a sign of a judicial selection system that is out of balance,” said JAS Executive Director Susan Liss. “High-priced, politicized judicial elections are no way to build fair and impartial courts. It’s time to look seriously at reforms, like merit selection, that will help get money and politics out of the judicial selection process.” Read more

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Is AL Death Penalty Scheme Unjust? Elected Judge Notes ‘Pressures’

One current judge and one ex-judge acknowledge that tough-on-crime concerns in Alabama judicial elections put pressure on state jurists to be less than impartial, writer Ashley Cleek reports in a Huffington Post commentary.

The commentary is titled, “Alabama’s Death Penalty Needs to Go/In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling against judicial override in Florida, one state remains where judges alone can decide life or death.” Under state law, judges in Alabama have been allowed to impose death sentences in cases in which juries called for life imprisonment instead, a practice recently declared unconstitutional by one state judge (see Gavel Grab).

Huffington Post reported these concerns of a sitting jurist: “Judge Tommy Nail, the presiding criminal judge in Jefferson County, Alabama’s most populous county, believes that …  in theory, judicial override can work to correct improper verdicts. The problem, he argued, ‘comes in practical application because of the pressures and other things that we as human beings have to deal with.’ Nail clarified that ‘pressures’ mean elections.” Read more

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Arkansas: Debate Launched Over Ending Supreme Court Elections

2000px-Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Arkansas.svgThe state Senate Judiciary Committee debated, but arrived at no consensus, on Wednesday regarding proposals to end Arkansas Supreme Court elections and to require disclosure of spending in existing judicial races by outside groups.

“We’ll continue to study. This is just the beginning step in the process,” said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican and the committee chairman, according to the Arkansas News Bureau.

There was advocacy on both sides of each proposal. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said earlier this month (see Gavel Grab) he would likely support an effort next year to move from judicial elections to a merit-based appointive system in the state; he made his remarks after a contentious and expensive state Supreme Court election. Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Huffington Post reports about a law passed in the wake of violence in Ferguson, “Missouri Judge Guts Law Written To Curb Money-Hungry Municipal Courts.”
  • New Hampshire Public Radio says former state Public Defender  Dorothy Graham’s nomination to the Superior Court was “scuttled after a conservative website accused her of a ‘history of trying to get child rapists off on technicalities.’” She has accepted a job with the New England office of the Federal Public Defender.
  • As Oklahoma legislators weigh a change to the way top judges are chosen (see Gavel Grab), law professor Andrew Spiropoulos of  Oklahoma City University writes in The Journal Record, “Right Thinking: Restoring balance to judicial selection system.”
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