Defeat Court Expansion ‘Power Grab’ Bill: Arizona Editorial

Legislation to expand the Arizona Supreme Court from five to seven justices “erodes the independence of the courts and makes a mockery of the concept of checks and balances built into our system of government,” an Arizona Republic editorial warns.

The editorial calls the legislation a power grab by Republicans who control the legislature and the executive branch, and likens it to a court packing attempt by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It urges defeat of the measure. Last week, Justice at Stake announced opposition to the bill (see Gavel Grab).

In a related Arizona Republic column, Arizona Chief Justice Scott Bales explains his own position. The court’s justices oppose the measure as a standalone bill. However, he would support it as part of a more costly package “that combines needed court funding, [and] salary increases” for the justices, he says. Bales disagrees that the court expansion legislation is aptly compared to Roosevelt’s court packing effort.

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. (more…)

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.

Justice at Stake Voices Opposition to Arizona ‘Court Packing’ Attempt

Mark Harrison, Justice at Stake Board Chair and an Arizona attorney, voiced opposition on Thursday to a bill advancing in the legislature to expand the Arizona Supreme Court from five to seven justices (see Gavel Grab for background).

“Arizonans have repeatedly stood against partisan political tampering with our courts, so we’re disappointed to see this fresh attempt by legislators bent on politically-motivated court packing in the state,” Harrison said in a statement.

“And the political motive is clear, because our own Chief Justice has stated that neither he nor other current members of the Court believe the Court needs more justices to handle its current caseload. This notion to expand our Supreme Court has been raised and rejected before, and deserves to fall by the wayside again. ”

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…)

Debate Continues Over Expanding Arizona High Court

A bill moving forward in the Arizona Senate to expand the state Supreme Court from five to seven justices is clearly about politics, Linda Valdez writes in an Arizona Republic commentary.

One Republican sponsor noted publicly that he would not find the bill so attractive if the governor were not a Republican, but a Democrat, she writes.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales recently stated opposition  by the court’s five justices to the measure. It could not be justified by the court’s caseload or growth of Arizona’s population, he said. (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).


High Court Expansion Bill Heads to Desk of Georgia Governor

Georgia’s state Senate has passed and sent to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature a bill to expand the state Supreme Court from seven to nine justices. Critics have called it an effort at court-packing.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that given one appointment the governor already has made, and possible retirement plans of justices, “The top court’s expansion, then, could potentially give the Republican governor an opportunity to appoint a majority of the justices to the top court’s bench before he leaves office.”

The Appellate Jurisdiction Review Commission recommended expanding the court, and sponsors of the bill said expansion is needed as the state grows. Retorted one critic,  Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, “We’re trying to pack the court here…for political reasons.”

Ex-Justice Eakin is Fined, Can Keep His Pension

Pennsylvania’s Court of Judicial Discipline concluded that former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin undermined public confidence in the judiciary. It fined him $50,000 in an ethics case arising from lewd emails, and permitted him to keep a $153,000 annual pension, The Allentown Morning Call reported.

“The common thread of the emails — with their imagery of sexism, racism and bigotry — is arrogance,” the discipline tribunal said. However, any bias reflected in the emails did not permeate his judicial opinions, it said. Eakin resigned recently, and his stepping down enabled him to avoid a public trial.

Eakin is the second justice to leave the court amid the email scandal, a series of events that has ignited calls and legislation for Pennsylvania to scrap its system for electing top judges and turn to a merit-based system for appointing them. “There is a need to reform the judicial system,” state Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat, said this week. “The general public is no longer confident of those who sit in judgment of others.” (more…)

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.