A Short-handed SCOTUS Opens for Business

justice-scalesAlthough the traditional “First Monday” arguments won’t take place until tomorrow, after the Jewish holiday, the Supreme Court officially started its new term today – with one vacancy still remaining.  A flurry of articles and editorials commented on how the short-handed Court will function, including pieces in The Washington Post, The New York Times,  Reuters, McClatchy, and the Los Angeles Times.    Several noted that without a full complement of justices, the Court may find itself unable to resolve key questions of law.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on its first day declined to weigh in on two closely-watched issues.  One was the appeal of a ruling in Wisconsin’s “John Doe” case involving Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-recall campaign.  According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the Court declined to hear the appeal of three Democratic district attorneys, who were requesting a reopening of the investigation into alleged illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and outside interest groups including the conservative Club for Growth.  The same interest groups were known to have supported the campaigns of conservative state Supreme Court justices, an issue that came under scrutiny when the court shut down the investigation into Walker’s campaign. According to the Journal, UC-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen observed,”A short-handed court split ideologically 4-4 may have been especially reluctant to delve into this politically sensitive case. Still the question of judicial recusal of judges who directly benefited from the Club for Growth’s campaign activities merited review.”

The Court also decided not to accede to the Obama administration’s request to reconsider the president’s plan to spare millions of immigrants from deportation, according to Reuters.  The Court deadlocked 4-4 over the issue last summer.

The Huffington Post took note not only of the Supreme Court’s short-handedness but of the failure to confirm scores of judges to lower federal court seats in a piece quoting Nan Aron in her role as President of our sister organization, the Alliance for Justice. Referring to Republicans in the Senate, Nan said, “What they’re doing is holding open these seats for a future Republican president to put in individuals who side with the wealthy and the powerful. That’s what this is about.”

And in state court news, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary has suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from the bench without pay for the rest of his term.  According to NPR, Moore violated judicial ethics when he ordered state judges not to respect the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling affirming marriage equality.

Column: Arizona Court Expansion Bid a ‘Power Grab’

A bill to expand the Arizona Supreme Court from five to seven justices is a transparent, political “power grab,” Tim Steller writes in The Arizona Daily Star.

“It’s a court-packing arrangement for political influence,” former state Chief Justice Charles “Bud” Jones, a Republican, told Steller.

“It’s an obvious political attempt by the governor to increase his political power by expanding the court and getting two additional appointments,” said former Chief Justice Stanley Feldman, a Democrat. “This is an attempt to expand the court when the court doesn’t need an expansion.” (more…)

Candidate Recuses When N.C. Court Hears Judicial Election Case

An attorney challenging a new law changing the way North Carolina Supreme Court justices are selected argued on Wednesday in front of those same justices. There was one exception; a justice who is seeking a new term in November stepped aside.

The new law would permit elected incumbent justices to seek a new term through a retention (up-or-down) election rather than a contested race. It was struck down by a lower court, and that decision quickly was appealed to the state’s highest tribunal.

The law’s challengers include Sabra Faires, an attorney running for the court in November, and two unlikely allies, the left-leaning ACLU of North Carolina and right-leaning Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom, according to The News & Observer.  Faires’ lawyer argued in court, and the other challengers in their briefs, that the shift requires a statewide vote on rewriting the state Constitution. This Constitution mandates that justices “shall be elected,” according to The Associated Press. (more…)

Kansas Supreme Court to Weigh High-Profile Abortion Case

The Kansas Supreme Court, which has come under partisan attack from politicians outraged over its rulings, has agreed to consider a case involving what The Topeka Capital-Journal called “the most divisive question before it in recent years.”

The court will weigh the constitutionality of a statute barring a second-trimester abortion procedure,  called “Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act.” The Kansas Court of Appeals divided 7-7 in January on an appeal involving the controversial anti-abortion statute; its deadlock meant a lower court’s decision, blocking the statute from going into effect, stayed in place.

The state Supreme Court agreed this week to consider “whether the Kansas Constitution guarantees the right to an abortion,” the Topeka newspaper said. To learn about how elected politicians have attacked the Kansas courts, with such efforts as legislation to expand the legal grounds for impeaching Supreme Court justices, see Gavel Grab.

N.C. Court Weighs New Judicial Selection Law

The North Carolina Supreme Court was to hear oral argument on Wednesday in a case involving how most N.C. Supreme Court justices are elected, The Associated Press reported.

A Superior Court panel recently voided a new law giving elected Supreme Court justices an option to seek a new term in a retention, rather than contested, election (see Gavel Grab). The state elections board asked for review of that ruling, and the case was set for the state’s highest court on an expedited basis.

Melissa Price Kromm of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections wrote a commentary in The Jefferson Post saying the new law was “another brazen move to reduce the power of average North Carolinians.” Her piece recounted how the legislature also scrapped the public financing for judicial elections.  (more…)

Judge on Fining Indigent Defendants: ‘There’s Another Way’

ShowImageWith one eye on the experience of Ferguson, Missouri, a Texas judge offers a first-person view titled “Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines.”

Judge Ed Spillane, presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and president of the Texas Municipal Courts Association, sums up the issue this way in a Washington Post commentary:

“In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay. There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.”


JAS Reiterates Opposition to Arizona ‘Court Packing’ Bill

Harrison_MarkJustice at Stake Board Chair Mark Harrison, a Phoenix attorney, took a strong stance against legislation to expand the Arizona Supreme Court and cautioned against a political “quid pro quo” in an interview with The Kingman Daily Miner.

Last week, Harrison said, “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” (see Gavel Grab). The Daily Miner has since reported that the Arizona Judicial Council, the court system’s policymaking arm, cast a split vote to support the expansion if it meant other critical funding needs of the courts would be met.

“The Legislature has to make sure the court has adequate funding without any political quid pro quo,” Harrison told the newspaper. “This is inappropriate.” If it were Democrats and not Republicans pushing for expansion of the court from five to seven members in this situation he would similarly oppose it, Harrison said. (more…)

Commentary: Arizona Court Packing Plan Part of National Trend

Elected politicians’ plan to expand the Arizona Supreme Court is “part of a national trend to control or eviscerate the judicial branch,” Linda Valdez writes in a stinging Arizona Republic commentary.

Citing recent New York Times (click here for Gavel Grab) and Associated Press (click here) articles about political battles to take over control of state courts, Valdez says about efforts in other states and what she calls a court packing plan in Arizona, “These are unseemly efforts to take over a branch of the government that acts as a check on the power of the other two branches.”

Valdez quotes former Arizona Chief Justice Stanley Feldman as saying that it is “obvious this [Arizona legislation] is an attempt by the administration and the Legislature to expand the court for political reasons.” Judges ought to rise up in opposition, she says. (more…)

Judge Accused of Ethics Breaches; He is Suing Commission

Kentucky’s Judicial Conduct Commission has accused Judge Olu Stevens, an African-American jurist in Jefferson County, of violating the canons of judicial ethics. Only last week, Stevens sued the commission, contending it intended to punish him in violation of his First Amendment rights (see Gavel Grab).

According to The Associated Press, six charges of misconduct were lodged against Stevens “for a series of racially charged public comments.” The AP elaborated, “The charges largely stem from a months-long public feud between Jefferson Circuit Judge Olu Stevens and Commonwealth Attorney Thomas Wine, who is white. The commission found that Stevens violated judicial canons when he publically alleged that Wine wants ‘all-white juries,’ a suggestion Wine has vehemently denied.”

Stevens has filed a motion to dismiss the ethics charges, according to WLKY.

Arizona is Indeed a Court-Control Battleground, Editor Agrees

State courts have become battlegrounds for often-acrimonious and sorely political fights over control, and the struggle in Washington over filling a Supreme Court vacancy mirrors the conflict in the states, City Editor Tim Wiederaenders writes in a (Prescott, Arizona) Daily Courier opinion.

Wiederaenders relies on an Associated Press article this week (see Gavel Grab) spotlighting  partisan political efforts in both state elections and in state capitals to control fair and impartial courts. In Arizona, a bill is advancing in the legislature to expand the state Supreme Court from five to seven justices, a step that Justice at Stake has denounced as “court packing.”

Also, the Arizona Senate is set to vote on House-passed legislation that would bar state courts, among others, from enforcing actions of the United States government — including its courts — that constitute “commandeering” of state officials. (more…)