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Judge Keeps New Mexico Public Financing Alive

A New Mexico judge ordered the secretary of state, Dianna Duran, to release public campaign money to a candidate for the Public Regulation Commission.

Judge Barbara Vigil issued the order on Thursday, according to a article. Duran had decided to withhold the funding after recent federal court hearings on litigation challenging the constitutionality of a matching funds provision in New Mexico’s public financing law.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down  a provision in Arizona’s public campaign financing law that furnished extra taxpayer dollars to participating candidates when privately funded foes or independent groups spent more. The Arizona provision that was struck down is similar to part of New Mexico’s law, according to the article.

An Alamagordo Daily News article said Judge Vigil’s ruling, in all likelihood, “will mean more public financing for a total of five other candidates for the PRC and state Court of Appeals.”

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MA High Court Rules in Favor of ‘OpenCourt’ Project

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of project OpenCourt’s ability to record, stream online, and archive public court proceedings, reports the Nieman Journalism Lab. The high court declared that restricting the project’s rights to publish was a violation of First Amendment press protections.

In its decision, the court said that those opposed to OpenCourt failed to show a compelling justification for government censorship of the online material, according to the Boston Globe.

This decision came during Sunshine Week, a national initiative meant to promote a dialogue on the importance of open government and freedom of information. OpenCourt was conceived as a way to make local Massachusetts courts more accessible to the public through technology.

OpenCourt placed cameras in courtrooms that could live-stream footage online in 2011, but by last summer, a local district attorney had filed motions to shut off livestream videos and keep the project from publishing them online, the article says.

According to the Nieman article, a judge denied the motion to remove the livestream, but did not comment on the archived records. However, as other state actors became involved, OpenCourt fought to keep its online resources.

“When there are less and less reporters out there to be the bridge to what’s going on in the nation’s courts, there needs to be a way for the public to be informed about how justice is administered in this country,” said John Davidow, the project’s executive director. “We felt that it was really an important right for us to fight for in the courts,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s decision can be found here.

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Democrats Seek Hearing on Judge’s Racist E-Mail

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has asked for a hearing to examine the conduct of a federal judge who sent to friends a sexist and racist e-mail about President Obama.

Conyers was joined by another senior Democrat on the panel, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, in a letter asking the panel’s Republican chairman to convene a hearing on the potential consequences of Judge Richard Cebull’s e-mail (see Gavel Grab), according to an Associated Press article.

The lawmakers said the recent disclosure “may not only undermine the public’s view of his personal credibility and impartiality as a judge, but also the integrity of the … federal judiciary.”

Judge Cebull has apologized. He and two groups have asked the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a formal judicial review of his actions. According to a Great Falls (Mt.) Tribune article, a legal expert suggested it was unlikely the Republican-controlled House would launch the requested hearing. Judge Cebull was appointed by President George W. Bush, a Republican.


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Justice Breyer a Robbery Victim in Caribbean

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was robbed last week at his vacation home in the Caribbean island of Nevis by an intruder wielding a machete. Justice Breyer’s wife and two others were in the vacation home at the time, and nobody was hurt, court officials said; $1,000 in cash was taken.

“Attacks on members of the federal judiciary are not new,” a CNN article said, and it mentioned an assault on then-Justice David Souter by a group of young males in 2004, when he was jogging alone; and an attack on Justice Byron White while delivering a speech in Utah in 1982. “That incident led to regular protection by U.S. marshals for members of the court when they travel,” CNN said.

In 2011, Federal Judge John Roll of Arizona was slain in a shooting rampage that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed five others (see Gavel Grab).


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In Texas, Electing 'Judge Who'?

Once again, the way that many Texas voters elect judges without knowing anything about them is getting scrutiny.

“Ever heard of Elsa Alcala?” asks the opening paragraph of an article by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit media organization. “She’s one of the nine judges on the state’s highest criminal court, which literally decides matters of life and death. And she’ll be on the Republican ballot in March. But most Texans won’t see her name until they walk into the booth next year and decide her future.”

When voters elect state officials while knowing nothing about them, there are other cues they use, especially political affiliations and pleasing names, the article suggests. It gives the example of a little-known Republican candidate with an innocuous name who was elected in 1994 for a criminal court judgeship, who subsequently ran into controversy over his legal credentials, whether he neglected his dogs, and even a criminal trespass charge.

Since that 1994 election, the article contends, “the first requirement to win a statewide race in Texas has been simple: you have to have that Republican ‘R’ behind your name.”

Wallace Jefferson (photo at right), the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, made a strikingly similar argument in a 2009 Houston Chronicle op-ed. In the commentary, he supported a switch to a merit-based system of judicial selection, saying “merit matters little in judicial elections” currently, and political party affiliation is the chief method relied on by voters:

“You don’t know who I am. I don’t blame you. I have been on the statewide ballot three times, in 2002, 2006 and 2008. I was elected each time by impressive margins. Yet a July 2008 statewide poll found that 86 percent of the electorate ‘never heard of’ me. I won because Texans voted for Rick Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John McCain.

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Essay: TV Would Boost, Not Lower, High Court's Stature

In a new essay, veteran Supreme Court watcher Tony Mauro dissects the “myth of Supreme Court exceptionalism” and finds it wanting as a reason for barring TV cameras in the nation’s highest courtroom.

Mauro’s commentary in The National Law Journal is entitled “Let the Cameras Roll.” The Supreme Court, unlike almost every other public institution, Mauro writes, has resisted for years the ”successive winds of change brought by radio, television and the Internet” while relying on a myth that it is unique.

“We operate on a different time line, a different chronology. We speak a different grammar,” Justice Anthony Kennedy responded to members of Congress who had asked about lifting the camera ban.

When the high court’s work is so largely hidden from public view, “[T]he Court is allowed to deprive the public of an educational feast,” Mauro maintains. He argues that the court’s view of its uniqueness doesn’t justify a courtroom camera ban:

“Although cameras might, and probably do, distort the behavior of elected officials bent on pleasing their constituents, they should have little negative effect on contemplative, life-tenured judges who insist they are apolitical. If they are truly independent and different, one would think that Supreme Court justices should be uniquely inattentive to the presence of cameras and should be able to carry on undisturbed.

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • President Obama’s efforts to diversify the federal judiciary shape up as his “greatest accomplishment” in office, contended a column by DeWayne Wickham of USA Today, and published in the Oshkosh (Wisc.) Northwestern.
  • Obama’s health care law, which likely is headed for Supreme Court review, has precedent in an earlier high court ruling dealing with medical marijuana, retired Justice John Paul Stevens said in a Bloomberg interview. He said he was skeptical about the idea that Congress did not have authority to pass the overhaul measure.
  • A new campaign rolled out by the Committee for Economic Development, calling for corporate America to forego political giving, was the subject of a Politico article. CED is a JAS partner group.
  • An Associated Press story about one state’s court funding crisis was headlined, “Arkansas judges find revenue down drastically, plan meeting to discuss possible reductions.”

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Lawmakers Bid to Reshape Tennessee Judicial Ethics Body

Social conservatives and fair courts advocates are poised to spar in Tennessee’s legislature over a conservative bid to grab control over the state’s Court of the Judiciary.

The Court of the Judiciary considers misconduct complaints against judges and determines whether sanctions are appropriate. With conservative legislators seeking to strip Tennessee’s Supreme Court of the power to appoint a majority of Court of Judiciary members, defenders of the judiciary are up in arms, according to a (Nashville) City Paper article.

Republican state Sen. Mae Beavers, a tea party favorite, is pushing a bill to place the Court of the Judiciary under the authority of the legislature, now controlled by Republicans. A similar bill failed in the last legislative session.

“It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain control over a separate branch of government,” said Steve Daniel, a retired judge who formerly presided over the Court of the Judiciary. “It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain power over who sits on the court. They want to try to influence the judiciary, to intimidate judges, to make them more palatable to their particular agenda.”

When state legislators won’t police their own unethical behavior, it’s absurd for them to take a watchdog role over the judicial branch, Daniel added.

Critics of the judiciary disagree and say they’re advocating for ways to hold judges more accountable.

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Judiciary Commitee, McCain at Odds Over Nominee's Status

Sen. John McCain has denied accusations that he and Sen. Jon Kyl are holding up President Obama’s nominee to the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, Tuscon attorney Rosemary Marquez. According to Fox 11 News in Tuscon, McCain claims the White House has not submitted her nomination to the Judiciary Committee.

Judiciary Committee staff, however, say they received Marquez’s nomination on June 23rd.

Arizona’s federal courts already face a judicial vacancy crisis, exacerbated by the death of Judge John Roll who was slain in the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords earlier this year.

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Wisconsin Senators Address Judicial Vacancies

In Wisconsin, where a new Republican senator has blocked an appeals court nomination, he and the state’s Democratic senator are giving different views on judicial nominations.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (photo at left) contended in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column that law professor Victoria Nourse, nominated to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was not qualified. She did not get a license to practice law in Wisconsin until December 2010, he wrote, and in addition, the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee never held a hearing on her nomination after she was nominated in July 2010.

Johnson, who is newly elected, has blocked consideration of her nomination and protested that he should have been consulted by President Obama. Some legal experts have taken a different view (see Gavel Grab).

Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl (photo at right) wrote a column published in the Milwaukee newspaper the same day, about the success of the Wisconsin Federal Nominating Commission for judges. “Our commission process has enabled Wisconsin’s nominees to stay above the political skirmishes about judges regardless of the party in control of the Senate or the White House,” he maintained. Read more

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