Gavel Grab

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Campaign Tooth Fairy or 'Straw Donor'?

More facts are emerging about the “Mystery Company” W Spann LLC which donated $1 million to the Super-PAC supporting Mitt Romney (See Gavel Grab).

The company was created by Ed Conard, who stepped forward after requests were made to investigate the short-lived company and its donation to Restore Our Future  PAC (See Gavel Grab). It is still unclear though, if Conard is the actual check-writer (A Politico article does name him as such). An August 8 New York Times editorial says:

“No one knows who wrote the check for the company called W Spann LLC, which was formed last March and dissolved in July with no listed officers or directors on record.”

So was this donation the act of a mysterious “campaign tooth fairy,” as the editorial put it? Or was it “opaque gimmickry” meant to hide straw donors within the “Citizens United casino” —  and what does it mean for the future of campaign finance? The editorial urges federal officials to find the answer to this question before similar incidents occur in the upcoming election cycle. Under current laws, straw donors who donate political funds in the name of someone else can be prosecuted.

The editorial warns that without proper investigation into this type of donation, “The risk grows with each fat check that political campaigning is heading back toward the sleazy era of Watergate corruption.”

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Kansas Senators Block Federal Appeals Court Nominee

Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, announced that the Committee would not vote on Steven Six’s nomination to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Leahy blocked the nomination because of the dissent of Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. The Associated Press reported that the Senators sent a letter to Leahy requesting that the Committee not accept Six’s nomination. The letter contained no reason for their opposition. When pressed for explanation, their reasons for opposition were vague, according to The Wichita Eagle, and Leahy also admitted that no disqualifying evidence had emerged throughout Six’s nomination process.

Steven Six is the former Attorney General of Kansas, and his nomination garnered widespread support:

“The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary gave Six’s nomination its highest rating. His professionalism and judgment have been praised by 29 state attorneys general, Republicans as well as Democrats. Six’s supporters have included five current and former deans of the University of Kansas School of Law and Deanell Reece Tacha, the Reagan appointee and former Kansan he would replace on the 10th Circuit.”

The Wichita Eagle report concludes:

“In his own letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee calling for Six’s confirmation, former Republican Attorney General Robert Stephan said Six had never let politics interfere with his responsibilities…Too bad the same cannot be said about Roberts and Moran…”

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Obama Nominates Fourth Openly Gay Federal Judge

President Obama has nominated another openly gay federal judicial candidate. Michael Fitzgerald is the fourth openly gay candidate to be nominated during the Obama administration.

Fitzgerald was recommended for nomination by California Sen. Barbara Boxer, reports the Washington Blade. Fitzgerald has worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and currently works at Corbin, Fitzgerald & Athey LLP. Boxer said of the nomination:

 “Michael’s sharp intellect, record of public service and broad legal experience will be a real asset on the federal bench.”

This nomination follows the landmark confirmation Monday of J. Paul Oetken, the nation’s first openly gay male to be confirmed to the U.S. District Court (see Gavel Grab). If confirmed, Fitzgerald will be the first openly gay federal judge to serve in California. In an update on the other nominees, the Washington Blade said:

“Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee favorably reported out the nomination of Alison Nathan, a lesbian, by a vote of 14-4. Another gay nominee, Edward DuMont, who’s been nominated for a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, has yet to be considered by the committee.” Read more

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Maine’s Matching Funds Provision Struck Down

In light of the Supreme Court’s Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett ruling, U.S. District Court Judge George Singal has declared invalid a provision in Maine’s public financing law for triggered matching funds, reports The Associated Press.

The provision was questioned by state Rep. Andre Cushing, who did not utilize Maine’s Clean Election funding. His opponents participated in public financing and received matching funds under the provision, and Cushing still won the election:

“The question to me was what right should politicians have to use taxpayer money and how far should the government intervene into the election process using government funds,” [Cushing] said. “It left an unpalatable taste in a lot of people’s mouths.”

Now Maine legislators must decide if the entire Clean Election Act needs to be revisited.

States with similar matching funds provisions in their public finance programs must now decide how what Arizona Free Enterprise Club means for their programs (See Gavel Grab).

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NM Judge Arrested, Accused of Rape

State District Judge Pat Murdoch of New Mexico was arrested on charges he raped  a local prostitute, reports The Associated Press.

The alleged victim said that she had met with Judge Murdoch before and that on one occasion he forced himself on her. She then decided to videotape the next encounter, and allegedly caught another forced incident on tape. An undercover police officer bought a copy of the video after an informant notified the officer of the existence of the video.

Judge Murdoch is known to be a respected member of the judicial community. He could not be reached for comment, but was said to be cooperating with investigators.

You can learn more from these sources: NM Judge says he will be vindicated…; KOBTV4: Accused Judge’s Lawyers Speak outKOBTV4: Judge Accused of Having Child Porn on Home Computer.


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Judge at Diversity Conference: 'Always … Hurdles' Ahead

The Washington Minority Bar Associations Collaborations Project (WAMBAC) recently held a statewide diversity conference, featuring Washington judges of diverse backgrounds. The judges discussed their experiences and their advice for any judicial hopefuls.

Among the judges present were Barbara Madsen, Chief Justice of the Washington State Supreme Court; Ricardo Martinez, United States District Court Judge; and Michael Spearman, Washington State Court of Appeals judge.

The panel highlighted obstacles that always stand in the path of becoming an elected or appointed judge at any level. Each panelist pointed out the need for passion to overcome the difficulties of becoming a minority or female judge.

“If you do it for a reason like I did, to give women a voice on the Supreme Court, it makes all of those daily trials and tribulations… worthwhile.”  Barbara Madsen

Ricardo Martinez grew up harvesting crops with his family first in Texas and then in Washington. Martinez was the first in his family to graduate from high school and the first to attend college. He earned his law degree and was eventually appointed by President Bush as a U.S. District Court judge in 2004. Martinez said about becoming a judge:

“There’s always going to be a lot of hurdles, no matter what… [h]ave faith in yourself and go for it.”

Justice at Stake continues to work with partners in Washington and throughout the United States to promote diversity on the bench. Justice at Stake and partners also published “The Path to the Federal Bench: A ‘How To’ Guide on Pursuing a Federal Judgeship,” which clarifies the sometimes confusing process of judicial selection and offers suggestions for a successful route to the federal bench. (See Gavel Grab).

To learn more about the importance of diversity on the bench, see the JAS web page on the topic.

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Priest's Tale Reveals Overloaded Immigration Courts

Roman Catholic priest Robert Vitaglione has been taking on a huge caseload of legal representation of immigrants in court for decades. The only problem: he is not a lawyer.

Father Vitaglione has done his best to represent immigrants in New York, but has finally been instructed not to do so any more. The New York Times reports: “Disheveled and disorganized, Father Vitaglione sometimes jeopardized cases with his erratic behavior, according to a federal finding.” He began taking on more cases than were manageable and some of his work began to fall through the cracks, resulting in poor outcomes for his clients.

The departure of Father Vitaglione has exposed a gaping hole in representation for immigrants. Emergency meetings have been convened to address the even greater lack of representation for immigrants, in the wake of Vitaglione’s departure. He was not the only nonlawyer representing illegal immigrants, a practice permitted in immigration courts. The article reports:

“New York has dozens of these so-called accredited representatives. But none had the caseload or recognition of Father Vitaglione, who was known inside the courthouses as Father Bob. He had more clients than the Legal Aid Society’s entire immigration unit.”

Opinions differ on whether “Father Bob” was providing a service that helped keep overloaded court dockets moving, or if he was simply masking the extent of the problem. That problem, however, is undeniable; sixty percent of detained immigrants and twenty seven percent of nondetained immigrants were unrepresented in court in New York in 2009. The article continues:

“Immigrants who represent themselves also slow down a system with no room for slack. Each judge’s docket can reach 2,000 cases, and immigrants without lawyers are left with only judges to explain technicalities, help with paperwork and assume some responsibilities of counsel.”

Many lawyers hope this will be a wake-up call for the legal community, and it will find a solution for the vastly inadequate representation in immigration courts. Until then, Father Bob continues to “supervise” cases taken on by his organization, the Committee of Our Lady of Loreto for Hispanic Immigration Affairs.

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Heading for an Octogenarian-Dominated Federal Bench?

Judge Richard D. Cudahy of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disparaged obstructionist tactics used to block confirmations in the Senate, an ACS blog reports.

At the 2011 ACS National Convention, Judge Cudahy mentioned the blockage of consideration for some qualified appointees, including his daughter-in-law Victoria Nourse, a judicial nominee. Cudahy called these tactics a “disgraceful display of partisan rancor.”

The article notes a news report that newly elected Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Tea Party favorite, has taken a highly conservative stance on judicial confirmations and stalled consideration of Nourse, nominated to the Seventh Circuit, and Louis Butler Jr., nominated for a district judgeship in Wisconsin (see Gavel Grab).

Cudahy cautioned that partisanships and obstructionist tactics will lead to a federal bench where judges in their 80s and 90s do most of the work. He spoke candidly, saying:

“ [T]hey will be the only ones left to do anything. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most appreciated presentation in our most recent Circuit conference was a lecture by a doctor on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. He provided us with useful information about a subject that really concerns us, and ought to.”

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Questionable Questioning of NJ Judicial Nominee

Six new Superior Court Judges were confirmed in New Jersey on June 29, filling vacancies left by retiring judges. Paired with this news, however, comes news of troubling treatment of one of the nominees in particular.

Sohail Mohammed

Sohail Mohammed was questioned by state senators on subjects wholly unrelated to his legal experience. A practicing Muslim, he was questioned for over an hour by senators on things like Sharia law, terrorist groups, and jihad.

A Herald News editorial reported that despite accusations from the far right, Mohammed has a good reputation:

[S]ince the days shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mohammed has been described as a ‘bridgebuilder’ between the Arab-Muslim community and law enforcement agencies across North Jersey. He has been vetted by the state police, the FBI and the governor’s office. By all accounts he is a loving father and husband and proud to be an American.

The American Muslim Union that Mohammed belongs to advocates religious tolerance, and there is no credible evidence linking Mohammed to extremist groups, the editorial said. Mohammed is New Jersey’s first Indian-American judge and only it’s second Muslim judge. The editorial concluded:

“Mohammed may or may not turn out to be a worthy jurist. But his merits should be measured by his actions and demeanor on the bench and not by how he chooses to exercise his faith, or whether he chooses to exercise any faith at all.”

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Judges to ABA Task Force: More Resources Needed

Heavy trial delays stemming from funding cuts and the lack of resources to meet needs of citizens in the court system were top concerns discussed at a recent hearing of the ABA Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System.

At its second national hearing, held at the University of New Hampshire, the Task Force heard from justices, administrators, lawyers, and clients who are frustrated with the consequences of cuts to court funding, according to an article from the New Hampshire Business Review.

Civil cases have been delayed for years as a result of over-crowded dockets. Attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson, co-chairs of the Task Force, heard from people who had been kept waiting for their day in court, and about the toll that waiting had taken on them and their families.

The recession and subsequent budget cuts to court funding have resulted in vacant judgeships and lack of administrators to carry out the work of the judiciary. Innovations alone will not make up for these shortages, said New Hampshire Bar President Marilyn Billings McNamara. Attendees at the hearing insisted that more resources are needed for an effective court system to function.

Other concerns raised at the hearing included a general lack of consistent funding to help the poor with civil legal assistance. One judge stated:

Access to justice is not [a] luxury only to be afforded in good times.

Issues discussed at the hearing will be compiled into a report that the Task Force will submit to the ABA House of Delegates. Learn more about the Task Force here or click here for earlier Gavel Grab posts about it.

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