Gavel Grab

Archive for August, 2009

Judge Praises Public Financing at W.Va. Hearing


A West Virginia commission created to look at possible judicial reforms heard praise for North Carolina’s judicial election reforms by a judge who sits on that state’s Court of Appeals.

The 2002 overhaul of North Carolina Supreme Court and appeals court elections led to nonpartisan elections, furnishing all voters with a voter guide and an offer of public financing for candidates in the 2004 election cycle.

“Most of us judges tried not to be politicians, but that was necessary to be elected,”  under the old system, Judge Wanda Bryant told the Independent Commission of Judicial Reform, according to a report in The Herald-Dispatch. “The new way really helps dispel big money influences in judicial elections.”

Public financing also has encouraged candidates who are not wealthy to run in judicial elections, the Charleston Gazette quoted Judge Bryant as telling the commission. That newspaper quoted Damon Circosta, with the North Carolina Center for Voter Education, as saying public financing has become mainstream in North Carolina.

In West Virginia, a bill to set up a pilot system for public funding of campaigns  for state Supreme Court candidates did not advance out of a legislative committee.

West Virginia judicial elections grabbed the limelight when the U.S. Supreme Court this year handed down a landmark decision in Caperton v. Massey. The high court said that West Virginia Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin was constitutionally obligated to recuse himself from a case involving Massey, because the energy company’s chief executive officer  had spent $3 million to help elect Benjamin–while appealing a case to overturn a $50 million jury award.

Oral arguments in that case are scheduled for Sept. 8 before West Virginia’s state Supreme Court, according to a Charleston Gazette story that examines legal maneuvering in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

No comments

NY Times: Citizens United is a 'Juggernaut'


If anyone returned home from summer vacation harboring lingering doubts on the importance of the upcoming Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, they can set them aside.

A New York Times feature over the weekend labeled the once-obscure U.S. Supreme Court case on corporate campaign spending limits “momentous” and packing the potential to “transform the way political campaigns are conducted.” It continued:

“The case, which arises from a minor political documentary called ‘Hillary: The Movie,’ seemed an oddity when it was first argued in March. Just six months later, it has turned into a juggernaut with the potential to shatter a century-long understanding about the government’s ability to bar corporations from spending money to support political candidates.”

Moreover, a re-hearing in the case set for Sept. 9 comes “at a crucial historical moment, as corporations today almost certainly have more to gain or fear from government action than at any time since the New Deal,” wrote Times reporter Adam Liptak.

Liptak examined some of the “strange bedfellows and uneasy alliances” behind more than 40 amicus briefs, including a measure of division in the liberal establishment. You can read more detail about the amicus briefs by clicking here for earlier Gavel Grab postings, and you can read about the Justice at Stake Campaign amicus brief here. Read more

No comments

For Ex-N.Y Judge, 'Guilt is Final Act'


The  tale of a crooked judge that emerged from an Albany, N.Y., courtroom last week had all the stuff of a John Grisham novel: a onetime seminarian and Army paratrooper who became a respected judge and election law specialist, he got into ethics trouble, needed  money for his legal bills, attempted to shake down lawyers and solicit a $10,000 bribe and got prosecuted.

If there is a moral to the story of former Judge Thomas J. Spargo, who faces sentencing Dec. 21, it could lie in the prohibited political activities during his 2001 campaign that got him in hot water, and in the calls of some activists for reform of state judicial elections.

But first, the story of  Spargo, 66, who was part of the legal team supporting George W. Bush during the Florida presidential recount after the 2000 election. After a four-day trial last week, he was convicted in U.S. District Court of attempted extortion and attempted bribery, according to an Albany Times Union story headlined, “Guilt is Final Act in Career.”

Spargo had run into allegations of ethics violations by January 2002 from a state watchdog panel. By Sept. 2003, his legal bills mounted past his resources to pay Read more

No comments

Man Sentenced in Threat on Judge

Curtis Lee Owen Jr., 22, of Baltimore was convicted of threatening Judge Robert C. Wilcox of Maryland District Court, and received an 18-month jail sentence. Owen was accused of telling Wilcox he intended to “blow his brains out,” according to The Capital newspaper.





No comments

U.S. Judge Voids Connecticut Finance Law

In the face of major corruption scandals in 2005, Connecticut legislators passed a public campaign finance law that some saw as a potential national model. Now a federal judge has declared the statute unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill decided Thursday that “a part of the law that provides a voluntary public financing scheme for candidates for statewide offices and state lawmakers puts an unconstitutional burden on minor party candidates’ First Amendment right to political opportunity,” according to an Associated Press article.

Underhill referred to “good motives” behind the drafting of the law and wrote, “Spurred on by a regrettable legacy of corruption that has pervaded all levels of elected office in recent decades, Connecticut is now commendably at the forefront of nationwide movement to increase transparency in the political process.” To see the full ruling, click here.

But he also found that the basic constitutional rights involved in the effort require narrow and carefully tailored regulations, the news service said.

The judge enjoined operation of the Citizens Election Program. It boosted the strength of major party candidates’ beyond their ability to raise campaign contributions in the past, Underhill said. Read more

No comments

Citizens United the 'Most Important' Case of Term?

From all the news media attention and dozens of amicus briefs it’s attracted, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission clearly is one of the major cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in its upcoming term.

But could it be the top case? Former U.S. Solicitor General Kenneth Starr says that’s possible. It “has a just claim to be the most important case” the Supreme Court will decide this term, Starr remarked at a lunchtime gathering sponsored by a local chapter of the Federalist Society, according to a report by the Metropolitan News-Enterprise in Los Angeles.

The case about corporate spending limits on elections–originating from a regulatory dispute involving a video documentary sharply critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton–will be reargued Sept. 9. When Starr was independent counsel, his report paved the way for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Starr, a former federal appellate judge, is law school dean at Pepperdine University. He offered some handicapping of the Supreme Court’s handling of Citizens United.

At the gathering, Starr “suggested that five  justices… ‘probably think all restrictions’ on electioneering communications and campaign spending violate the First Amendment,” the publication reported. They are Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Starr said their views on the role of stare decisis will be tested by the case.

President Obama’s Department of Justice has urged the high court not to overrule two prior decisions involving corporate limits, saying a reversal “would likely invalidate federal legislation that has restricted corporate electioneering for over 60 years, as well as similar legislation enacted by many States; and basic principles of stare decisis…demand adherence to precedent in this case.”

The  doctrine is literally translated from the Latin as “to stand by that which is decided.” To read more in Gavel Grab about the case, click here, and to see Justice at Stake Campaign’s amicus brief, visit here.

No comments

Souter Papers Will be History

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter is giving his personal and professional papers to the New Hampshire Historical Society in his home state. And by the time the public gets a look at them, they will be history, you might say.

The public will be barred from viewing Souter’s papers for 50 years, under “an extraordinarily long restriction” placed by Souter, the Blog of Legal Times reported.  Souter is an avid historian, the BLT explained, yet there’s another side:

“Souter is also an intensely private person, especially protective of the Supreme Court on which he served for 19 years. He was a lifelong diarist and may have decided that his files were too sensitive to be made public while any of his colleagues or many of his law clerks are still alive.”

Bill Veillette, the executive director of the historical society, was pleased with the donation and didn’t grumble about the restriction. Given much longer restrictions placed on the papers of some other famous individuals, he said, 50 years is “almost fresh from our vantage point.”

No comments

LA Times: Citizens United Could Mean 'Profound Shift in Election Law'


An excellent summary of the Citizens United case is offered in a  Los Angeles Times feature that explains the case in terms of  politics, law, and U.S. history. “At issue before the court is whether to erase the legal distinction between corporations and individuals,” writes reporter David G. Savage, who said the court could enact a “profound shift in election law”:

President Theodore Roosevelt campaigned as a trust-busting reformer, but was embarrassed by revelations that his 1904 campaign had received secret contributions from New York insurance companies. At his urging, Congress passed a law to keep corporate money out of political races.

Now, that century-old ban stands in danger of being overturned by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, on the basis of an equally venerable principle: free speech in politics.

President Obama’s administration  has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold limits on corporate spending for political elections. 

The limits will be debated when the high court hears re-arguments Sept. 9 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a potential blockbuster case that could result in overturning the century-old ban on corporate political giving.

In a recent legal brief, Obama’s Justice Department defended these restrictions as protecting “the free-speech rights of shareholders,” according to a Bloomberg news story. The brief contended, Bloomberg said, that “allowing a company to use general funds for election advocacy ‘distorts’ the political process by converting ‘the resources of individuals into political expression with which they may well disagree.’”

Citizens United  used its own legal brief to hammer the government for failing in its Read more

No comments

Public Financing Bill Advances in Wisconsin

A public financing bill for state Supreme Court elections was passed by Wisconsin’s  Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, Insurance, Campaign Finance Reform and Housing,  moving it closer to a floor vote.

Action on the bill was reported by the State Bar of Wisconsin, which has backed the legislation. A Wisconsin Assembly version of the bill was passed by a committee in June.

Wisconsin’s Supreme Court elections erupted in 2007 and 2008, both in spending and political mud-slinging. As the Justice at Stake Campaign  noted in June, “Only four states have exceeded the $3.5 million raised by Wisconsin high court candidates” in the last two years.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a Justice at Stake partner, testified in support of the legislation in May, saying, “The Impartial Justice bill would create a far more competitive environment while at the same time freeing Supreme Court candidates and their campaign committees from the money chase and enabling candidates to run for this office without undermining the public’s trust and faith in their ability to serve honorably once elected.”

To see earlier Gavel Grab reports on Wisconsin, click here.

No comments

More Diversity Soon on Federal Bench?

In the wake of a Brookings Institution study on the changing federal judiciary, the Washington Post puts the data in perspective.

When Judge Sonia Sotomayor was elevated to the Supreme Court, the number of Latina federal appeals court judges declined by one-third, the newspaper reports. And while federal judicial diversity is “relatively low…it’s increasing,” according to the newspaper.

Obama’s nominees would bring much more diversity to the U.S. courts. He has nominated 16 judges besides Sotomayor, and they have not yet won confirmation. They include six white men and two white women; three black men and two black women; two Asian American women and one Asian American man.

Among all 1,268 federal judges employed as of Aug. 11, 13 percent are minorities and 18 percent are women, the Post reports. Among the 768 who are active judges, 18 percent are minorities and 26 percent are female. To see a Gavel Grab posting, including a link to the report, click here.

No comments

Next Page »