Christie Appointment Signals End to Judicial Stalemate reports that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has withdrawn the nomination of Superior Court Judge David Bauman, a Republican, for the state Supreme Court, in favor of Democrat Walter Timpone. The latter is a former assistant U.S. attorney.

According to the newspaper, Timpone’s nomination and Bauman’s withdrawal signal an end to a dispute between Christie and the Democrats (see Gavel Grab) who control the Legislature over the Supreme Court seat. The fight began in Christie’s first year in office. (more…)

Four Finalists Recommended for Alaska Supreme Court

The Juneau Empire reports that the Alaska Judicial Council has recommended four finalists for the vacancy on the state Supreme Court. Gov. Bill Walker has 45 days to make a final decision about which of the recommended candidates will replace Dana Fabe, the justice who announced her retirement last year.

“While national headlines have been filled with the controversy surrounding the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, the process of filling Alaska’s vacancy has been downright sedate by comparison,” the newspaper reports.

The article goes on to highlight the stresses for applicants going through the vetting process, noting in particular the negative criticism that can be generated through the Judicial Council’s practice of sending anonymized surveys of the candidates to every member of the Alaska Bar Association. However, Alaska’s merit system is ultimately praised for the calm and lack of political drama that it brings to the appointment process.

“On the federal level, that’s a highly politicized process…In Alaska, happily, we have an entirely different process that was created through the brilliance and the foresight of the delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention,” the Empire quotes Alaska Chief Justice Craig Stowers as saying.

Speaking to the newspaper, Julie Willoughby, a Juneau attorney and former member of the Judicial Council, said that Alaska’s system is an “apolitical…comparative merit-based process” and that she believes it “functions as designed and that it’s a fantastically good system.”

Opinion: Lack of Diversity in Alaskan Courts A Problem

An opinion piece appearing in the Alaska Dispatch News criticizes the lack of cultural and gender diversity in the state’s judicial system, following the announcement that Justice Dana Fabe, the only woman on the all-white Alaska Supreme Court, is retiring in June.

The article reports that of the 73 judges serving the district to supreme court levels in Alaska, only 5 are of a minority background and only 18 are women. The author spoke with District Court Judge Pamela Washington, one of only two African-American judges of a district court level or higher, who reportedly stressed the importance of judicial diversity and said that it creates confidence in the justice system. (more…)

Out-of-State GOP Research Firm Looks Into MT Court Candidates

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle a Republican research firm in Florida is conducting opposition research on at least one of the nonpartisan candidates running for the Montana Supreme Court.

The newspaper writes that “a researcher at Data Targeting of Gainesville, Florida, filed on March 18 multiple requests with Cascade County officials for public information on Cascade County District Court Judge Dirk Sandefur, including his expense receipts, voting record, travel records, and case files, according to emails obtained by the Chronicle.”

According to the Chronicle the firm has a history of involvement in Montanan supreme court elections after the group filed public information requests on Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat during his 2014 campaign. Subsequent to the requests Justice Wheat was targeted by negative advertising booked by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and Americans For Prosperity. The RSLC spends frequently and openly on state races and booked over $175,000 worth of ads in this year’s Arkansas Supreme Court elections (see Gavel Grab).


Sharon Herald Calls for Merit in Pennsylvania

An opinion piece in the Sharon Herald calls for the adoption of merit selection in Pennsylvania. The article highlights the lack of information available to voters and the amount of money spent on “nasty attack ads” as particular areas of concern under the current system of partisan elections.

“Since candidates are typically circumspect on how they would rule in specific cases,” the newspaper writes, “voters have had to gather clues from endorsements or the candidates’ party affiliations…It’s not exactly throwing darts, but it’s pretty close.”

Referencing the bipartisan group of Pennsylvania governors that recently came out in favor of a merit selection system for the state, the Herald writes, “Schweiker raises another salient point — these contests have been subject to an enormous amount of spending, with nasty attack ads blanketing the airwaves…And the overwhelming bulk of that cash almost certainly came from advocacy groups, business interests or lawyers who had a vested interest in the outcome.”going to a merit selection would increase the chances that our judges will be chosen on the basis of actual merit. Let’s hope the Legislature gets the ball rolling.”

Going to merit selection “would increase the chances that our judges will be chosen on the basis of actual merit. Let’s hope the Legislature gets the ball rolling,” the article concludes. In October 2015, the House Judiciary Committee approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would introduce a merit selection system for the state’s appellate courts (see Gavel Grab for background). The proposal has yet to make any further progress.

Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • NBC10 Philadelphia reports that Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty has been hospitalized after being assaulted by a homeless man in Center City Friday night.
  • According to the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has appointed a seventh Democrat to the state’s 12-member Judicial Selection Commission, violating state statutes that limit the number of members of the same party to six.
  • The editorial board of the Indiana Business Journal urges policymakers in Marion County to carefully consider merit selection over the coming year, calling the judicial selection reform decision “too important to be politicized.”

Philadelphia Inquirer Takes Stock After Eakin Resignation

Two articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer reflect on the state of the courts after Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin resigned last week rather than face his upcoming trial in the Court of Judicial discipline (see Gavel Grab).

In “Flawed ethics reviews, sharp criticism, and a justice’s path to resignation,” staff writers at the Philadelphia Inquirer recount the sprawling saga of the email porn scandal, tracing it from the early retirement in 2014 of Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery all the way up to Eakin’s resignation last Tuesday.

Also writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chris Mondics asks if “the shocks, humiliations and embarrassments that have been plaguing the Pennsylvania judicial system for decades [will] ever come to an end” after Eakin’s resignation made him the third Supreme Court Justice in four  years to be forced to leave the bench for disciplinary reasons.

“Scandal has become an enduring theme of the Pennsylvania judiciary,” Mondics writes, but the recent overhaul in personnel which saw the appointment of three new justice reflects the potential for a brighter future. (more…)

Angry Tirade Becomes Focus of Selection Debate

According to the Tulsa World, an “angry tirade” made last year by a state lawmaker from Oklahoma has become the focus of recent efforts to highlight the partisan motivations behind Republican criticism of the way Supreme Court justices are appointed.

Rep. Kevin Calvey, who recently filed a bill to change the selection system for justices and appellate court judges to judicial elections, took to the House floor last April to protest against the Supreme Court’s abortion rulings. “If I were not a Christian and didn’t have a prohibition against suicide, I’d walk across the street, douse myself in gasoline and set myself on fire to protest the evil that is going on over there (at the state Supreme Court),” the newspaper quotes him as saying. (more…)

Kansas Justices Discuss Job, Political Challenges

The Wichita Eagle reports that Justice Carol Beier and Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the Kansas Supreme Court spoke with and answered questions from the public this weekend at an event where they addressed some of the challenges they face in their job.

According to the newspaper, the very first questions asked by the crowd were on the judicial impeachment bill (see Gavel Grab) and the recent efforts to change the way justices are selected (see Gavel Grab).

In response to the impeachment bill, Justice Beier said that while she has faith in the legislature to do the right thing, they have a “fairly interesting if not hostile environment to work in outside the building.” Addressing the potential selection reform, Chief Justice Nuss responded by praising the current system for its rigorousness, something he thinks the systems currently under consideration by the legislature might not offer:

“It was a very thorough vetting. It’s for people who are serious about it, and it’s competitive and you get a chance to see the credentials of the people who are applying. If you don’t have that system, you don’t know how that person who is picked stacks up.”

Addressing these developments, an opinion piece in the Garden City Telegram argues that they constitute a sustained attack on the court. The newspaper writes that Gov. Brownback and Republican lawmakers’ “interest in controlling the judiciary defies a basic principle of liberty in separation of powers that provides checks and balances among three co-equal branches of government.”

“In a powerful rebuke of the Republican faction in charge, a recent statewide poll showed far more dissatisfaction with Brownback and the ultraconservative-controlled Legislature than the Kansas Supreme Court,” the article concludes.

Analysis and Reaction Flood In Following Supreme Court Nomination

In the wake of Thursday’s nomination of D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court opinion and reaction have flooded in.

Following the announcement, the New York Times reported that Republican leaders in Washington confirmed that they remain committed to refusing President Obama’s nominee a confirmation hearing. The Washington Post looked at the battle ahead between the White House and the GOP and wrote on the pivotal role Garland could play on the Supreme Court. While New Republic argued that the Republicans obstructing the nominee are violating the Constitution, Salon reflected on how Senator Orrin Hatch’s history with the Garland could undermine their arguments for obstructing him.

According to Politico, progressives expressed frustration at President Obama’s pick and NBC News reported that minority leaders and activists were reportedly disappointed that the nominee was not as a diverse as they hoped.