Gavel Grab

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • According to Minnesota Judge Frank Kundrat, many people know little about the court system or, what he calls, the “quiet third branch of government.” In a commentary for Echo Press, he attempts to rectify this by describing the different courts and roles of the state judicial system.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke yesterday at the dedication ceremony for the American Bar Association’s new D.C. office. According to The Blog of Legal Times, Ginsburg praised the association’s work promoting the equality of women in the law. The American Bar Association is a Justice at Stake partner organization.
  • Pennsylvania’s Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously recommended the highest ranking judge on the state superior court Thursday to take the place of disgraced ex-Justice Orie Melvin on the state Supreme Court. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that, if confirmed by the Senate, President Judge Correale F. Stevens will serve on the bench until 2016, and could run for election in November 2015 to serve longer.

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Recalling retired judges to temporarily fill vacancies on the bench in Pennsylvania saved the state government $9.8 million over the past three years, according to the Administrative Offices of the Pennsylvania Courts. However, the Tribune-Democrat reports that some are raising questions about the practice’s constitutionality, because it circumvents voter retention elections.
  • The Washington state political-action committee Citizens for Judicial Excellence (CJE) has grown over the years to become a substantial force in municipal and district judicial elections. The Seattle Times reports that the group, which is composed entirely of DUI defense attorneys, has drawn criticism for giving defense attorneys too much power over influencing which judges they appear before in court.
  • The Court of Federal Claims has ruled that six federal judges who wrongly were refused cost-of-living salary adjustments will receive an average of $150,000 each in back pay, according to Courthouse News Service. For background on the underlying ruling last year from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, see Gavel Grab.
  • The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the 2010 conviction of internet radio-host Harold Turner. Reuters reports that Turner has been sentenced to 33 months in prison for writing “violent threats” against the judges on the Seventh U.S. District Court of Appeals.
  • This week the Florida Supreme Court temporarily suspended prosecutor Howard Scheinberg and may disbar Circuit Judge Ana Gardiner for excessive ex parte communications . The Huffington Post reports that an investigation by Florida’s Judicial Qualifications Committee found that the lawyer and judge exchanged 949 cell phone calls and 471 text messages over a period of 155 days during a trial.
  • Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett signed into law a bill last Wednesday that officially dismantles Philadelphia’s scandal-plagued traffic court. According to The Pennsylvania Record, the follows a federal investigation that uncovered a wide-spread ticket-fixing scandal, resulting in the indictment of nine traffic court judges. Read more about the Philadelphia Traffic Court’s history on Gavel Grab.

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‘Judges Should Avoid Politics,’ Editorial Declares, Citing O’Connor

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s recent address to the Philadelphia Bar Association, and her urging reform of Pennsylvania’s judicial election system (see Gavel Grab) still is reverberating on the state’s editorial pages.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an editorial headlined, “Judges should avoid politics.” It applauded Justice O’Connor’s warning of harmful consequences flowing from big-spending judicial elections and her support for a switch in Pennsylvania to a merit-based judicial selection system:

“O’Connor warned that, ‘It’s a serious problem that people in this country think of judges as politicians in robes.’ It’s time for Pennsylvania to correct that.”

Justice O’Connor, who has crusaded nationwide in the cause of protecting fair and impartial courts, recently joined Justice at Stake as its First Honorary Chair.

The editorial also quoted Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, as saying, “Vocal support from national figures like her really highlights the need for change” in the commonwealth. PMC is a JAS partner organization.

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Echoing O’Connor, Editorial Urges Judicial Selection Reform in PA

A good way to battle a popular perception that judges “are just politicians in robes” would be for Pennsylvania legislators to switch from judicial elections to a merit-based selection system, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial says in echoing retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Addressing the Philadelphia Bar Association recently, Justice O’Connor called it a “serious problem that people in this country think of judges as politicians in robes” (see Gavel Grab). The editorial concurs:

That is precisely the problem with electing judges. The people who support them with money are often the lawyers, special interest groups or others who may appear before them in court. Politicians and some of their supporters don’t think there is anything wrong with this cozy situation so fraught with potential conflicts of interest.

“Yet Pennsylvanians happy with the status quo have no excuse — not with a prime example of politician-judges recently thrust upon them. The public corruption charges that led to Joan Orie Melvin’s downfall from the state Supreme Court had to do with her use of court resources for political campaigning. The disgraced justice was the epitome of the robed politician.” Read more

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PA Court Rejects Challenge to Mandatory Judicial Retirement Age

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected a challenge by several state judges to a provision in the state’s constitution requiring judges to retire at age 70.

Voters approved the constitutional amendment 45 years ago in a legal fashion, the court majority said, according to a (Harrisburg) Patriot-News article. If judges want a change, they should consider seeking a constitutional amendment, the court said.

Justice Thomas Saylor wrote for in the 6-0 ruling, “Although certain societal circumstances may have changed since 1968, when the challenged provision was added to the Constitution — and, indeed, some of the original justifications for mandatory retirement may not have reflected the most fair or even the most beneficial public policy — the proper approach of conforming the Constitution more closely with petitioners’ vision of how experiential changes should be taken into account is to pursue further amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.” Read more

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The law license held by ex-Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin of Pennsylvania was suspended temporarily by the state Supreme Court following her recent conviction on public corruption charges and her sentencing, according to a article.
  • Gov. Tom Corbett’s latest nominee to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Superior Court Judge Correale F. Stevens, appeared in 2007 at an anti-illegal immigrant rally, according to
  • A recent session of the military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay was held in such tight secrecy that the defendant was not allowed to attend, and participants were not allowed to discuss the issues debated, the New York Times reported
  • A New York Times feature about U.S. District Judge Edward Korman, who handed a scathing defeat to the Obama administration involving the morning-after birth control pill, described him as a complex and gentle judge.

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O’Connor Pushes for Reform of PA Judicial Election System

Addressing the Philadelphia Bar Association, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called it a “serious problem that people in this country think of judges as politicians in robes,” reported. She urged the lawyers’ group, which backs merit-based selection of judges, to continue pushing for reform.

There is an erosion of public trust in impartial courts when judges are seen as politicians, Justice O’Connor warned. She mentioned opinion polling showing that almost three in four Americans believe campaign contributions have an influence on judges, the Philadelphia Business Journal reported.

Pennsylvania has seen some of the nation’s most expensive judicial elections, Justice O’Connor noted.

Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, said about Justice O’Connor’s remarks:

“Judicial selection reform is not necessarily the most eye-catching or ‘sexy’  issue. However, vocal support from nationally respected figures like Justice O’Connor highlights the need for change. Campaign money, special interest group and political party endorsements, a familiar name, or good ballot position shouldn’t play such a big role in choosing jurists, who play such a critical role in society.” Read more

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced that he has nominated Superior Court Judge Correale F. Stevens to take the seat on the state Supreme Court vacated by Joan Orie Melvin, who was recently convicted of public corruption. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Stevens has served on the Superior Court since 1998 and has been President Judge of the court since 2011.
  • President Obama must nominate a judge to the U.S. District Court to take the place of Judge John Bates, who was made head of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. According to The Blog of Legal Times, the president would not ordinarily have to nominate an additional judge to the District Court, but because Bates is to be the director of the Administrative Office, federal law mandates that an additional judge be added nominated.
  • The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that independent groups that participate in politics periodically, but whose main focus is elsewhere, need not file regular campaign reports after spending in support of a candidate. However, as the Des Moines Register reports, the court upheld other key portions of the state’s campaign finance law, such as the ban on direct contributions from corporations to political campaigns.
  • The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has come under greater scrutiny and criticism in recent weeks after it was revealed that it approved the National Security Administration’s collection of private citizens’ phone records. Live Science reports that several U.S. senators and civil libertarian groups such as the ACLU have responded to the recent scandal by demanding that the FISC release details about its decisions to the public.

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Opinion: Obama Just Doing his Job by Naming D.C. Circuit Judges

It’s “backwards” when critics contend President Obama is trying to further his policy goals by nominating judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, argues in a USA Today op-ed.

In fact, Kendall writes, “Dating back to President Reagan, Republican presidents have filled 15 of the last 19 vacancies on the D.C. Circuit and nine of these nominees remain in service as active or senior judges. These conservative presidents have used this important court as a training ground for Supreme Court nominees — Roberts, along with Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg were elevated from the D.C. Circuit — and as a home for committed opponents of health, labor and environmental safeguards. Because the D.C. Circuit has the exclusive power to hear many types of cases involving these safeguards, these judges have the power, on any given day, to issue rulings that send Obama’s agenda into a tailspin.”

Given this history, Obama “simply needs judges who will uphold validly enacted laws and reasonable regulations,” Kendall contends. He says Obama has done his job by choosing nominees for vacancies on the influential appeals court, and now it is time for the Senate to do its job. Read more

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Top PA Judge Says Justice Should Rethink Position on Court

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ron Castille said Justice Seamus McCaffery, who reportedly is under investigation by the FBI (see Gavel Grab,) should rethink his position on the bench.

“It’s a distraction to the Supreme Court and an embarrassment to our court also,” Justice Castille said, according to “So I think if I was Justice McCaffery, I’d start rethinking my position on the Supreme Court.”

Justice Castille added, “You know we have to have the trust of the citizens, and if citizens think that various justices are doing improper or unethical acts, or even illegal acts, then that’s really bad for the court system.” Read more

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