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Business Committee Urges Merit Selection

Our friends at Choose Judges on Merit, the blog of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, have noted this editorial by the Committee for Economic Development.

Advocating merit selection for judges, the Committee declared that fair courts would help foster business and economic development:

According to the 2008 U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of state liability rankings, the five worst states all choose justices through competitive elections. The five best states all have appointed Supreme Courts…

The current economic crisis has companies and financial institutions struggling to regain the public trust. We have to ensure that our legal system is above reproach. Supporting judicial independence and selection reform is a clear-cut opportunity for business leaders to do the right thing.

You can find the full posting here.

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Ginsburg 'Lonely' as Supreme Court's Only Woman

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (right) said she feels “lonely” as the only high court’s female justice, according to an article by the Associated Press.

In a speech to Ohio State University law students, Ginsburg noted that the United States could follow the example of other nations like Canada, whose Supreme Court holds four women: “There I am, all alone, and it doesn’t look right,” she said.

Court watchers believe that Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter may be the first justices to retire.

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Iowa Court Strikes Down Same-Sex Marriage Ban

In a landmark ruling, the Iowa State Supreme Court has lifted the ban against same-sex marriages, according to an article by kcci.com.

In Varnum v. Brien, six same-sex couples sued their county for denying them marriage licenses. A lower court had ruled to overturn the ban. The state Supreme Court unanimously found that the statute restricting civil marriages to a single man and woman violated the equal protection clause of the state constitution:

We have a constitutional duty to ensure equal protection of the law. Faithfulness to that duty requires us to hold Iowa’s marriage statute, Iowa Code section 595.2, violates the Iowa Constitution. To decide otherwise would be an abdication of our constitutional duty. If gay and lesbian people must submit to different treatment without an exceedingly persuasive justification, they are deprived of the benefits of the principle of equal protection upon which the rule of law is founded. Iowa Code section 595.2 denies gay and lesbian people the equal protection of the law promised by the Iowa Constitution.

Camilla Taylor, senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal, declared the decision a “victory [that] will go down as another proud day in Iowa’s long history of protecting individual rights.”

While Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said he will not seek a rehearing, opponents of same-sex marriage have indicated they will push for a constitutional amendment that would have to pass two consecutive legislative sessions before being placed on a public ballot.

Iowa joins Massachusetts, Connecticut, and California in striking down same-sex marriage bans. However, California recently faced a challenge to that decision in the controversial passage of Proposition 8. Vermont, on the other hand, is currently considering a same-sex marriage bill.

For more coverage on this ruling, you can visit this TV News Report from WQAD Channel 8 Davenport, Iowa.

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Texas Judge Omits Millions in Financial Disclosures

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, currently facing possible impeachment on ethics charges for refusing to keep her office open to receive a last-minute execution appeal, omitted almost $2 million in assets in her annual financial disclosures, according to an article by The Dallas Morning News.

The sworn statement Keller (right) filed with the Texas Ethics Commission in April 2008 did not include ownership interest in seven properties. According to The News, she made the same omissions in each of her sworn statements the last four years. Nonetheless, as another Morning News article notes, Keller’s attorney claims that the oversight was “‘absolutely an inadvertent error.’”

Despite these assets, Keller asked that the charges be dismissed because the state refused to pay for her attorney expenses to contest the allegations.

Andrew Wheat, research director of Texans for Public Justice, which examines the finances of public officials, declared that Keller’s omissions violated the public trust:

“It leaves one speechless to see so much left out of her personal financial statements on the one hand and then on the other hand to see her making her claims that hiring a private attorney would be financially ruinous… Is it willful hiding of assets, in which case that person probably isn’t fit to be our top criminal judge? I don’t know.”

An Associated Press article has reported that Keller will submit new financial disclosure forms that include properties she should not have omitted, though this may not save Keller from legal repercussions.

Keller had previously filed a response to the charges being considered by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, denying any misconduct on her part and blaming the Texas Defender Service instead.

The full text of Keller’s response can be found here.

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Alabama Rejects Bills for Nonpartisan Elections

The Alabama Legislature has voted down two bills that would remove politics from judicial elections, according to a report by the Associate Press.

The bills would have created nonpartisan elections and limited campaign contributions for appellate judge candidates. While the votes split along party lines, as Republicans voted against and Democrats in favor of the bills, Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, who supported the legislation, declared that “‘Poll after poll has shown that the people don’t believe that politics should be involved in judges’ races.’”

To find out more about Alabama, you can visit other Gavel Grab postings.

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Tennessee Judges Urge State to Keep Merit Selection

Choose Judges on Merit, the blog of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, have marked this article in the Triangle Business Journal.

As the Tennessee Legislature debates whether to retain merit selection, appellate court judges, such as Justice William Koch, support the system: “‘[We] believe in merit selection as an appropriate, effective and efficient way to select and retain judges.’”

To see the full posting, click here.

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Editorial Calls for Recusal in Caperton

As the nation awaits a decision on Caperton v. Massey, a Boston Globe editorial is calling for the U.S. Supreme Court to “slow a dismaying trend toward the auctioning off of judgeships by deep-pocketed special interests.”

Although Massachusetts practices gubernatorial appointments, 39 states elect their judges in “campaigns that are as bare-knuckled and richly financed as any political seat.” This system raises questions about the impartiality of judges who were financially supported by special interest groups.

Caperton is a prime example: a coal company CEO spent $3 million to help elect a West Virginia Supreme Court justice who later overturned a $50 million lawsuit against the company. The Court must now decide whether the justice’s actions created an unconstitutional “‘appearance of bias.’”

As the editorial argues, “If the justices condone this travesty, they will be letting the well-heeled place their ingots of gold on justice’s scale.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision by the summer.

For more information regarding Caperton v. Massey, you can visit the Justice at Stake Caperton resource site.

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Texas Judge Responds to Impeachment Charges

A Texas judge has responded to charges she violated her judicial duties by refusing to keep her office open after business hours for a late execution appeal.

According to an article in the Austin American-Statesman, Sharon Keller (right), presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, denied the charges being considered by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, offering a list of facts that were not considered by the commission.

Keller argued she was never aware defense attorneys had computer problems as they attempted to file a late appeal.  She concedes she had stated the county clerk’s office could not remain open after 5 p.m., but adds that she “never intend[ed] to shut Richard’s lawyers out of the court.”

The full text of Keller’s response can be found here.

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First Ad Attack in Wisconsin Supreme Court Race

A liberal group’s advertisement has struck the first blow in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, an article in the Chicago Tribune reports.

With two weeks to go before the election, the Greater Wisconsin Committee released a TV ad attacking Jefferson County Circuit Judge Randy Koschnick (left), who is challenging Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson (right). Specifically, Koschnick was accused of supporting “corporate special interests, the wealthy and powerful and against victims” (his campaign denies the accusation).

Although third-party groups had been inactive until that point, special interests have been heavily involved in past Wiscons high court, including a spot–condemned as misleading by the Annenberg Polical Fact Check–that helped oust incumbent Louis Butler. (A storyboard of one of the ads can be found here.) Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, who sponsored Butler’s successful opponent, stated they would not be financially active in this year’s race.

For more information on Wisconsin, you can visit other Gavel Grab postings.

Update: The ad can be seen here:
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Texas Chief Justice Champions Merit Selection

“We must eliminate cynicism, money and partisanship in judicial selection,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson (right) declared in an opinion column in The Dallas Morning News.

Echoing a recent address before the Texas Legislature, Jefferson argued for merit selection, using his own career as an example of flawed judicial elections. Although Jefferson comfortably won three statewide elections, a July 2008 poll discovered that 86% of people had “‘never heard of’” him. Obviously, his “success depended primarily on a straight-ticket partisan vote” rather than on his qualifications.

However, Jefferson stated, voters are the ones who suffer: “When a judge’s victory is based on party over principle, money over merit, cynicism over the rule of law, voters lose.”

In the current system, Jefferson observes, judges solicit funds from lawyers who later appear in court, which obviously leads parties to question the judge’s impartiality. Jefferson’s solution is simple:

We must eliminate cynicism, money and partisanship in judicial selection. We should adopt a system for judges that has two primary components. Judges should achieve office by merit rather than whim, and voters should hold judges accountable, based on their records, through subsequent retention elections.

For more information on Texas, you can visit previous Gavel Grab postings.

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