Bills Would Address Judicial Recusal and Discipline in Wisconsin

Wisconsin state Rep. Gary Hebl has introduced a package of bills to reform judicial discipline and recusal standards, according to The Capital Times. The legislation was introduced in the wake of ongoing controversy about the state’s highest court, campaign money, and recusal requests (see Gavel Grab for background).

His proposals include requiring a judge to step aside if a party to a case has spent $1,000 or more for a campaign contribution, or through independent expenditures, in the past four years; let the state’s highest court review justices’ recusal decisions; if a justice declines a recusal request, he or she shall report the reasons why; and have a panel of Court of Appeals judges discipline justices, as opposed to the Supreme Court doing so. (more…)

Louisiana Judge Sues Colleagues Over His Removal From Cases

Campaign donations by plaintiffs’ attorneys in a 2012 Louisiana Supreme Court election apparently have fueled an unusual result: A justice is suing colleagues on that high court, saying they illegally forced his recusal from two cases.

Justice Jefferson D. Hughes filed his lawsuit in a federal court, regarding his removal from lawsuits against two oil companies. The lawsuit named Chief Justice Bernette Johnson and Associate Justices Greg Guidry, Marcus Clark and John Weimer, according to The New Orleans Advocate.

Hughes contended his judicial colleagues effectively put “unconstitutional limits on the amount of money a person can contribute to a political action committee.” The plaintiffs attorneys, according to The Advocate, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars toward his election. They supported him through a PAC called Citizens for Clean Water & Land. (more…)

Williams Case Features Thorny Recusal Questions for SCOTUS

n-SUPREME-COURT-large570When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments February 29 in Williams v. Pennsylvania,  justices will have to consider whether a Pennsylvania judge should have stepped aside in a situation that bears some similarities to instances in which they themselves have declined to do so, according to The New York Times.

The Times’ Adam Liptak writes that justices will have to rule on whether former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille should have recused himself from a death penalty case that came before the court, since the case was one his office had prosecuted when he served as Philadelphia’s District Attorney.  The question “puts the justices in a ticklish spot,” Liptak writes, “as the best arguments against recusal are grounded in their own practices. Individual justices decide for themselves whether their recusal is warranted, just as Mr. Castille had.”

The case also raises questions about the effects of judicial campaigning on criminal justice, since Castille had run for judicial office on “tough-on-crime” themes. Justice at Stake has joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that death-row inmate Terrance Williams was denied his due process rights last year when Castille declined Williams’ request to step aside from hearing an appeal. The justice then joined a unanimous opinion that reversed a lower court and lifted the stay of Williams’ execution.  (See Gavel Grab.)

“When judges facing re-election decide criminal cases, scholarly research increasingly shows that tough-on-crime judicial campaign politicking results in harsher sentences,” Liz Seaton, JAS Interim Executive Director, said when the brief was filed.

Will Judicial Recusal Issue Be Considered by High Court Again?

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to take up a judicial recusal appeal from Wisconsin argued on the basis of Caperton v. Massey, it could help set ethics standards nationwide, a Mother Jones article says.

Caperton is a landmark Supreme Court ruling about runaway special interest spending in judicial elections. In the current legal dispute, reporter Pema Levy writes, the high court could be asked to decide whether two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices should have recused from a case involving a campaign finance investigation. The Wisconsin court’s ruling shut down the investigation  of possible violation of campaign finance laws by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups in 2011 and 2012 recall elections. (more…)

After Ending Probe, Wisconsin Court Triggers More Controversy

At the Oshkosh Northwestern, Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, takes issue with recent Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions shutting down a campaign finance investigation and more recently, she says, closing avenues of recourse for plaintiffs in the earlier litigation.

If the high court had adopted several years ago tougher judicial recusal rules that her organization advocated, then several of its justices might not be facing accusations now that they had conflicts of interest, Kaminski says in an op-ed. You can learn about election spending that benefitted the justices, and requests that they recuse, from Gavel Grab.

Kaminski alludes to a Dec. 2 ruling that a special prosecutor was improperly chosen to oversee an investigation of possible violation of campaign finance laws by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups in 2011 and 2012 recall elections; and a ruling last week that “five county district attorneys who still might have been able to appeal the case to a higher court had only 14 days in which to start that process.” Kaminski concludes, “This case deserves to be appealed, and our highest court should not be suppressing the legal process.” (more…)

Scalia’s Remarks Ignite Uproar, Lawmaker’s Call to Recuse

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has ignited an uproar with remarks from the bench this week, in an affirmative action case, that some black students might be better off at a “slower-track school” where they “do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said, “These ideas that he pronounced yesterday are racist in application, if not intent,” according to The Washington Post, while Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. G.K. Butterfield, another Democrat, said Scalia should recuse from hearing the case, according to The Hill. Butterfield asked whether the remarks eroded the public’s confidence in impartial justice.

In some news media there was extensive mention of Scalia’s proclivity for making frank, incendiary remarks. And a New York Times article said the justice was “stepping into a long debate over what has been called the mismatch theory of college admissions,” a theory that it explored at length.

The Associated Press said Justice Clarence Thomas has voiced similar views in a case more than a decade ago. And it quoted Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former Scalia clerk as saying, “I just think he’s a pull-no-punches kind of a guy.” Cassell has served as a federal judge.

Chief Justice to Recuse in Kansas Court Power Case

Chief Justice Nuss

Chief Justice Lawton Nuss of the Kansas Supreme Court will step aside when the court hears oral arguments on Thursday over a contentious case about a new statute to reduce the court’s authority. He voluntarily chose to recuse. The other six justices declined requests to step aside.

Nuss wrote that he “clearly engaged in more direct and indirect public communication on the legislation at issue than any of my colleagues” and would recuse voluntarily, the Kansas City Star reported. At issue in the case is a law to strip the Supreme Court of authority to appoint chief judges  in lower courts. It has drawn national attention. There was further coverage from The Wichita Eagle, The Topeka Capital Journal, The Associated Press and WIBW

Dissenting WI Justice: ‘What a Mess This Court has Wrought!’

Controversy continues to swirl around the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s shutting down of a state campaign finance investigation, and most recently its 4-1 ruling this week that a special prosecutor in that probe was improperly named (see Gavel Grab).

“What a mess this court has wrought!” declared Justice Shirley Abrahamson in her lone dissent, according to Fox6Now.

Francis Schmitz, the Republican special prosecutor, lamented, “The miscalculation I made in this investigation was underestimating the power and influence special interest groups have in Wisconsin politics,” according to an article by PR Watch. That article quoted former state Justice Janine Jeske as saying, “To somehow remove the lawyer representing one of the parties after the opinion [has been issued] is extraordinary.” (more…)

Wisconsin Court: Campaign Finance Probe Will Not Be Reopened

The Wisconsin Supreme Court said on Wednesday that a special prosecutor was improperly chosen to oversee an investigation of possible violation of campaign finance laws by Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups in 2011 and 2012 recall elections.

The court did not budge on Wednesday from its ruling in July (see Gavel Grab) finding no violations of campaign finance law and ending the probe, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said. The special prosecutor had asked the high court to reconsider that 4-2 ruling. In the latest ruling, the court ruling was divided 4-1; one justice who participated in July has subsequently died. (more…)

Will Kansas Court Recuse in Judicial Authority Case?

Readers of Gavel Grab may be familiar with an unusual case in Kansas, where the attorney general has asked all seven justices of the state Supreme Court to step aside. Mother Jones now offers its intriguing take on the case:

“Kansas Republicans believe they have created a law that their own high court cannot review,” the magazine reports. “The power struggle between Kansas Republicans and the state’s highest court goes back to a years-long battle over education funding,” it adds.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt says the justices ought to recuse from hearing an appeal of a ruling that struck down a statute removing some of the high court’s authority, because they have indicated publicly their opposition to the law that was struck down. The statute took away the Supreme Court’s authority to appoint chief district judges, and there is political tension around the case, given the context noted by Mother Jones and other factors.