Gavel Grab

Archive for August, 2010

Dispatches from Judicial Elections Sizzle

A website created by several incumbent Maryland judges to spotlight the raunchy sayings of a judicial hopeful is only one of several sizzling judicial election dispatches from around the country at August’s end.

The website highlights candidate T. Scott Beckman, running for Circuit Court judge in Baltimore County, and features such Beckman remarks as his pledge to “hire the hottest clerks,” according to a Baltimore Sun article. Others can not be printed in a family-oriented blog.

Beckman labeled the website “a hit job” and a “smear campaign,” and he insisted those and other remarks were not a part of his campaign,  an article at reported.

In other dispatches:

  • Circuit Judge Mac Parsons launched his campaign for the Alabama Supreme Court by attacking Republican incumbent Tom Parker as lazy, according to an Associated Press report. Justice Parker fired back that the challenger is “a liberal Democratic judge” who views the court system as a paperwork factory. (Meanwhile, Republican Justice Thomas Woodall gave a $5,000 political donation to Parsons’ campaign, the Gadsden Times said.)
  • A justice sitting on the Illinois Supreme Court, where Democrats hold a 4-3 majority, faces a retention vote in what “could be the state’s most vicious of the 2010 election season,” the Progress Illinois website reported. If Democratic Justice Thomas Kilbride is unseated, it would be the first such removal of a state justice by the electorate.

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Judges Seek Better Protection Against Threats

Two groups representing Social Security and immigration judges have asked the U.S. government to take new steps to protect them from the threat of violence.

Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, offered some of the worst horror stories at a session in Washington, according to an NPR report:

“One colleague reports that the brake lines to her car were cut while in the parking lot at work.”

“Another colleague reported that there was gang graffiti in her courtroom. During the anthrax scare, an immigration judge received a letter containing white powder. Another judge was grabbed by the robe by an irate respondent. Another judge experienced someone attempting suicide, right there, in the courtroom.” Read more

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Almost One in Eight U.S. Judgeships Vacant

It’s hardly a new story, but now it’s squarely in the national eye.

A Los Angeles Times report documents that almost one out of eight federal judgeships is vacant across the country. This article in a major national newspaper not only underscores–but draws attention to–the impact of political partisanship in stalling judicial confirmations. The result, legal scholars suggest, is a threat to the delivery of justice.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy added his voice to those who are concerned. Without assigning blame, he told the newspaper, “It’s important for the public to understand that the excellence of the federal judiciary is at risk.”

Justice Kennedy added, “If judicial excellence is cast upon a sea of congressional indifference, the rule of law is imperiled.”

Here is how the Times sums up the dilemma: “The politicized confirmation process has left nearly 1 in 8 posts empty. Republicans say it’s part payback, but they argue that [President] Obama has been slow to nominate judges.” Read more

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Corporate Political Money 'Radioactive' Now?

Some corporate political spending has become “radioactive” in the wake of a landmark Supreme Court ruling and an angry public response.

That’s the intriguing analysis offered by Eliza Newlin Carney in a National Journal article, based in part on a public backlash over big contributions by Target Corp. and Best Buy Co. to a Minnesota group supporting the GOP candidate for governor. He opposes gay marriage.

Here’s a taste of the withering backlash that Carney documents:

“Since news of Target’s $150,000 donation to the pro-business group MN Forward broke in late July, irate customers have staged some 1,200 store protests; close to 300,000 have signed onto’s Target boycott; more than 74,000 Facebook users have joined an anti-Target group; and a trio of investment firms has filed a shareholder resolution demanding that Target re-evaluate its political spending policies.”

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling early this year lifted key restraints on direct corporate and union election spending. Read more

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IA Justice: Marriage Ruling Showed Judicial Independence

With Iowa’s state Supreme Court under fire for its decision legalizing same-sex marriage, a sitting justice has defended the ruling as exemplifying judicial independence.

Justice Mark Cady, addressing graduates of the University of Iowa College of Law, delivered these remarks earlier this year about the controversial decision, according to a Des Moines Register article:

“Judicial independence is what explains why court decisions throughout history can first be criticized, and later embraced as pivotal advancements.”

“Societal change is a part of life, but it seems to emerge through human effort – not human nature. An independent judiciary allows that effort to be recognized, even at times when human nature would urge the well-traveled path of complacency.” Read more

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WA Court Weighs New Recusal Rule

Washington state’s Supreme Court is considering a rule change requiring judges to disqualify themselves in cases involving large campaign backers. It is a direct response to a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

The state Supreme Court is expected to discuss in September whether to adopt a rule requiring a judge to step aside if he or she benefited by receiving $16,000 in financial backing from a party to a case, according to a Tacoma News Tribune article. The proposal is aimed at at independent expenditure campaigns.

The proposal came from a task force of attorneys, judges and lay people and was a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Caperton v. Massey ruling. That decision found that large judicial campaign expenditures could create an unacceptable potential for bias. Read more

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IN Judicial Ethics Rule Survives Challenge

A federal appeals court has rejected a second attempt by an anti-abortion group to challenge an Indiana ethics rule barring judges from telling their views about abortions.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the challenge brought by Indiana Right to Life Inc. was not legally ripe, according to a National Law Journal article, and affirmed a lower court ruling that upheld Indiana’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

The appeals court did not decide the issue of whether Indiana’s rule conflicts with a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Republican Party of Minnesota v. White.

In that case, the Supreme Court struck down an ethics rule that barred judicial candidates from stating their views “on disputed legal or political issues.” The ruling dramatically accelerated the politicization of judicial elections.

To learn more about that decision and its implications, check out Justice at Stake’s issues page on judicial speech.

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Lawsuit Hits KS Merit System for Picking Justices

Several Kansans, represented by activist lawyer James Bopp of Indiana, have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the way state Supreme Court justices are selected under Kansas’ merit-based selection system.

The lawsuit seeks a court order blocking a nominating commission from filling a vacancy on the state Supreme Court created by retirement and death of Chief Justice Robert Davis, according to a Wichita Eagle article.

The nominating commission recommends candidates for selection by the governor. The commission is made up of five lawyer members and four non-lawyers. Bopp said in a statement that under this system, ordinary Kansas voters are denied an equal voice in selecting Supreme Court justices.

The nominating panel  fully intends to proceed with identifying nominees to fill the current vacancy on the court absent a court order to the contrary,” countered Ron Keefover, spokesman for the Kansas Judicial Center.

Bopp is best known as a champion for eliminating campaign finance regulation, but this is not his first foray into challenging a merit selection system. You can learn more about Bopp from earlier Gavel Grab posts, and you can read about merit selection of judges by checking out Justice at Stake’s issues page on the topic.

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Weaver Resigns, Shakes up Michigan High Court

The surprise resignation of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Weaver, an independent-minded jurist who feuded with her fellow Republicans in their 4-3 majority, has shaken up the court and the political landscape.

Justice Weaver’s resignation seemed to herald new fireworks over November’s elections. It gave Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm an appointment to the court, bringing the first Democratic majority in 11 years and brightened prospects for a Democratic majority in the future.

Granholm appointed Judge Alton Thomas Davis, 63, a veteran of 26 years on the circuit and state appeals benches, to fill the vacancy. A short time later Democrats nominated him to run for election to the seat as an incumbent, with the significant advantage that bestows.

Justice Davis said he would rejuvenate “the worst supreme court in the country,” the Detroit News reported.

Possibly hinting at the tone of elections to come, Justice Robert Young Jr., a Republican nominated to stand for re-election in November, blasted Justice Davis’ appointment as a “backroom” deal and branded the new justice “as liberal as you can get.”

Justice Weaver, 69,  spent 16 years on the court.  Elected to it two times, she had prepared to run for re-election as an independent. Upon her resignation, she spoke openly of plans to push for reform, focusing on the nomination and election of state Supreme Court justices, according to a statement published by the Detroit Free Press:

“The present system of dual processes by which we elect and appoint Supreme Court justices is deeply flawed and in need of an overhaul. Specifically, we need to promptly reform the process of how we select justices, and we need transparency and accountability in the administration of the people’s judicial business by the Michigan Supreme Court. Read more

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Post: Iowa Election at 'Center Stage' in Gay Marriage Fight

Iowa’s “normally low-key” retention election for three state Surpeme Court justices “has suddenly taken center stage in the national fight over same-sex marriage,” according to a Washington Post front-page article today.

With three justices facing an ouster campaign for taking part in a unanimous ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa, the article probes whether the election threatens the ability of judges to focus on the law, and not on electoral politics.

“We need to vote them off the bench to send a message across Iowa that we, the people, still have the power,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a Republican politician who is spearheading the campaign. “Not only will it send a message here in Iowa, but it will send a message in California, in Arizona and across the country that the courts have really taken on too much power.”

In response, the article quotes former Iowa justice Mark McCormick as saying: “I’ve used the word ‘vengeance’ before in describing what this campaign is about. I think it is a challenge to judicial independence. There’s an effort being made to succeed in turning out of office these three good judges for an inappropriate reason.”

Added Carolyn S. Jenison, executive director of One Iowa, a gay advocacy group, “I think those opponents of same-sex marriage are going to grab hold of this and run with it, and it will be a big battle ax that they can shake around and say, ‘You’re next.’ ”

Vander Plaats has vowed to raise millions to unseat the three justices on the ballot. By contrast, the Post report, none of the three judges has formed a campaign committee or spoken publicly on their own behalf.

To learn more, see these previous Gavel Grab posts.

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