Gavel Grab

Archive for April, 2010

Bar Head Defends MO Merit Selection Success

In Missouri, where the debate over the best way to select judges has gotten heated (see Gavel Grab,) the president of the Missouri Bar has laid out a staunch defense of merit selection.

Skip Walther (photo at left) said Missouri’s nationally recognized merit system for choosing judges has worked effectively for 70 years and was adopted as a forceful response to the way Tom Pendergast, the “head of the corrupt political machine in Kansas City,” hand-picked judges in the 1930s. Walther’s commentary was published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Critics seek to scrap the state’s  judicial appointment system and replace it with competitive partisan elections. Walther thinks that doesn’t make sense:

“Elections are good in political contests. Politicians are supposed to bend to the will of the electorate. Judges are not. They are supposed to be above public opinion. They are supposed to make decisions based on the constitution and the law and the facts of the case, not on how much money the litigants contributed to their campaigns or how popular a decision might be.”

Walter also had a few sharp words for those behind the election-system initiative:

“The only people pushing for a change are those who are angry that they cannot control our judges, and they want control. They could care less about smarts or professionalism or fairness or justice; they want judges who will do what they say.

“Just like Pendergast.”

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Bills Seek Sunlight on Corporate Political Spending

To soften the impact of Citizens United, leading Democrats introduced bills in Congress requiring corporations to identify themselves in political ads they pay for, and to disclose their expenditures to shareholders and the public.

The legislation would “shine a light on the flood of spending unleashed by the Citizens United decision,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, said in remarks on the steps of the Supreme Court, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The high court issued the campaign finance ruling, permitting unlimited corporate and labor union spending on elections, in January.

The bills introduced by Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., also would require a corporate CEO or other top official to state on camera that they stand by the message in the ad, according to articles in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.

State and congressional leaders have scrambled to draft legal or legislative responses to the blockbuster ruling, many of them seeking to build on the high court’s also upholding existing disclosure requirements.

President Obama praised the legislation: Read more

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What Do We Want in a Justice? 'Judicial Experience'

A national poll shows strong support among Americans for selecting a Supreme Court justice who has worn the judicial robes.

Some activists and Democrats have urged President Obama, in deciding upon a nominee to replace Justice John Paul Stevens, to look beyond candidates who have spent time on the bench.

But the Washington Post-ABC News poll found judicial experience to be the most valued characteristic, according to a Washington Post article.

  • Seven in 10 people answering the survey considered judicial experience a positive qualification for a nominee, compared to only 5 percent who thought of it as a negative. The poll found these other opinions about the court, or about the nominations process:
  • The high court was judged balanced in its decision-making by 46 percent of respondents, compared to 26 percent faulting it as too liberal and 21 percent labeling it too conservative. (In a poll three years ago, the latter two numbers were 18 percent and 31 percent, respectively.)
  • Sixty-five percent of Americans were comfortable with Obama picking the next justice to sit on the high court.
  • Diversity in making the selection wasn’t a hot issue for the public. Eight in 10 respondents said they didn’t find it important  whether the nominee is female, African-American or Protestant. Read more

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Senate Panel OK's Bill for Televising Supreme Court

The Senate Judiciary Committee has taken a first step toward requiring that oral arguments before the Supreme Court be televised.

On a 13-6 vote, the panel approved legislation Thursday to require televising of the formal arguments, unless a majority finds that doing so would violate due process rights, according to a Politics Daily article.

Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa. and sponsor of the bill, said in a statement, “The Supreme Court makes pronouncements on Constitutional and federal law that have a direct impact on the rights of all Americans. Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented.”

Supportive remarks by several Republican co-sponsors also were included in that statement on Specter’s Web site.

Also advanced by the committee was a resolution stating the view that the Supreme Court should televise arguments, according to The Blog of Legal Times. A third measure passed by the panel would allow cameras in courtrooms if they were permitted by chief district and appellate judges.

To learn more about cameras in the courtroom, check out Gavel Grab.

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Obama's Surprise High Court Interview: Judge Sidney Thomas

President Obama held the first publicly known formal interview in his Supreme Court search process with federal appeals court Judge Sidney Thomas of Montana (photo at left).

This step suggested Obama is giving Judge Thomas greater consideration than some observers had thought as a potential nominee to succeed Justice John Paul Stevens.

Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden interviewed Judge Thomas on Thursday in separate sessions, reported the Associated Press. That news came as the president’s remarks Wednesday about judicial activism (see Gavel Grab) got a lot of attention.

Judge Thomas sits on the San Francisco-based Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton and has a reputation as “independent and a straight-shooter,” AP wrote, despite that court’s having a liberal reputation.

The current Supreme Court has many justices with ties to the Northeast and the Ivy League. Judge Thomas, on the other hand, is from the West and was educated there. A report of his interviews at the White House plays “to the White House’s advantage in signaling that Obama is giving hard review to a candidate who comes from outside the Washington Beltway and does not neatly fit into conventional wisdom,” the article commented.

Meanwhile, the president’s remarks to reporters aboard Air Force One earlier this week, warning about conservative judicial activism, drew heightened attention–especially in the context of his current search for a potential Supreme Court nominee.

A New York Times article was headlined, “Obama Says Liberal Courts May Have Overreached.” It put Obama’s remarks in a historical context: Read more

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Prop 8 Trial Conclusion Set for Mid-June

Federal Judge Vaughn Walker has tentatively set June 16 for closing arguments in the historic California trial about same-sex marriage, according to a KCBS News report.

California voters in 2008 approved Proposition 8, with a ban on same-sex marriage. A lawsuit was filed challenging the ban; final testimony in the trial of the lawsuit came in January. A decision could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. You can read about the case in Gavel Grab.

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Friday Media Summary


AP source: Obama talks to judge about high court
Ben Feller – 4/30/2010

CNN/Political Ticker: White House begins finalizing list of high court candidates
Bill Mears – 4/29/2010

ABC News/Political Punch: President Obama Interviews Judge Sidney Thomas for Supreme Court Slot
Jake Tapper – 4/29/2010

National Review Online/Bench Memos:
Ed Whelan – 4/29/201


U.S. News & World Report: White House Expects Battle Over Supreme Court Nominee
Kenneth T. Walsh – 4/29/2010

CNN: Sources: White House officials urging liberal pick for court vacancy
Bill Mears – 4/29/2010

Huffington Post: Elena Kagan Endorsed Controversial Bush Nominees
Sam Stein – 4/29/2010


Washington Post: Poll affirms a vote for judicial know-how
Robert Barnes and Jennifer Agiesta – 4/30/2010

LA Times: The Supreme Court could use an oboist
Meghan Daum – 4/29/2010


Huffington Post: Concerns about Sufficiency of Medical Treatment Mar Military Commission Proceedings
Daphne Eviatar – 4/29/2010

Amnesty International: USA: More of the same: New Manual for Military Commissions confirms acquittal may not mean release
Press Release – 4/29/2010

Huffington Post: New Manual for Military Commissions Disregards the Commander-in-Chief, Congressional Intent and the Laws of War
David Frakt – 4/29/2010

Read more…

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High Court Lags Behind Many States on Gender Diversity

Many states are ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court for gender diversity, according to a new backgrounder by the National Center for State Courts, a partner of Justice at Stake.

The Supreme Court now has two justices, out of nine. Even if President Obama were to pick–and win confirmation for–a third, nearly half of state courts of last resort — 25 of 53 — already have achieved “that level of gender balance, or greater,” the National Center reported.

Women now comprise  31 percent of all sitting justices on state courts of last resort, according to the National Center’s data. Its backgrounder provides a state-by-state guide.

Meanwhile, U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia told fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus that Obama does not appear likely to choose an African-American to succeed Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring.

“We’re not sure this president is ever going to nominate another African-American to the court,” she said, according to an article in The Hill newspaper.

To learn more about the importance of diversity in our courtrooms, check out Justice at Stake’s issues page on the topic. To read more about Obama’s Supreme Court search, click here for Gavel Grab or click here for the JAS “Replacing Justice Stevens” page.

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Obama Hits 'Conservative' Judicial Activism

President Obama has a beef about some courts: They are not giving the right deference to lawmakers’ decisions.

The president, who is deciding upon a successor to Justice John Paul Stevens, shared some of his thinking while aboard Air Force One this week, according to an Associated Press article. It was headlined, “Obama warns of a ‘conservative’ judicial activism.”

Obama said some judges ignore the will of Congress and the democratic process. Rather than let the political process fix problems, they impose judicial answers, he said.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, the feeling was, is that liberals were guilty of that kind of approach,” Obama said. “What you’re now seeing, I think, is a conservative jurisprudence that oftentimes makes the same error.”

When Congress and state legislatures pass laws, judges ought to presume they should get “some deference as long as core constitutional values are observed,” he added.

In new reports about his Supreme Court search, the Los Angeles Times examined the opinions of three leading potential nominees on the use of presidential power, and in Newsweek, five experts wrote posts presenting the cases for their favorites.

In the Room for Debate blog of the New York Times, experts offer their views on what criteria Obama should use in the selection.

To learn more about potential nominees, White House and opposition strategies, and Obama’s criteria, check out other Gavel Grab posts or visit Justice at Stake’s “Replacing Justice Stevens” page.

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Thursday Media Summary


JAS: Nominee Should Share Stevens’ Commitment to Fair Courts
Press Release – 4/28/2010


Washington Post/AP: Stevens hears last argument as justice
Jesse J. Holland – 4/28/2010


Washington Post/AP: Obama warns of a `conservative’ judicial activism
BEN FELLER – 4/28/2010

Wall Street Journal: Judge Has Record on Abortion Issue
Nathan Koppel – 4/29/2010

NY Times/Room For Debate: Who Should Be the Next Justice? – 4/28/2010

Newsweek: Judiciary Advice for Obama

Dallas Morning News: Questions for the next Supreme Court nominee
William McKenzie – 4/28/2010


FOX News: Fox News Poll: Most OK With No Protestants on Supreme Court
Dana Blanton – 4/28/2010

The Hill: D.C. delegate: Obama unlikely to pick African-American for Supreme Court
Russell Berman – 4/28/2010

National Center for State Courts: Many states outpace U.S. Supreme Court on gender diversity
Sandy Adkins – 4/21/2010


Washington Post: Military tribunal opens hearings on Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr
Peter Finn – 4/29/2010

Montreal Gazette/AFP: Khadr turns down plea deal: report

Toronto Star: Two pictures of Omar Khadr emerge in court
Michelle Shephard – 4/28/2010

Washington Independent: Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald: The Most Important Unseen Influence on Omar Khadr’s Military Commission
Spencer Ackerman – 4/28/2010

RT: US citizen pleads guilty to Al-Qaeda connection to get out of solitary

Miami Herald: New war court manual reaches Guantánamo

AP: No decision on whether militia members stay jailed
ED WHITE – 4/28/2010


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