Gavel Grab

Archive for March, 2011

DRI Report: Judicial Independence Threatened

DRI, the national organization of defense trial lawyers and corporate counsel, has released a new report entitled, “Without Fear or Favor in 2011 — A New Decade of Challenges to Judicial Independence and Accountability.”

The report “confirms that large scale contributions to judicial campaigns have reached unprecedented levels” since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, “posing critical threats to the notion of judicial independence and the integrity of the American civil justice system,” according to a summary posted on DRI’s Web site.

The report “examines a vast array of issues affecting judicial independence and accountability, explaining how judicial campaign contributions and attack ads are polarizing the judiciary and compromising the appearance of fairness in our court systems,” according to the summary. DRI is a Justice at Stake partner.

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IA Activist Wants Changes to Merit Selection

Conservative Iowa activist Bob Vander Plaats suggested that the most recent state Supreme Court appointments reflect a selection process amounting to a “good ol’ boys network,” and needing reform.

“Guys, this thing was settled before it was even started,” Vander Plaats told a Cedar Falls audience about the nominating commission process that winnowed 90 candidates down to nine finalists in the space of six hours, according to a West Cedar Falls Courier article.

“We would love to change the process…where the governor would appoint, the Senate would confirm and the people would still vote for retention,” Vander Plaats said.

Iowa’s merit selection process for judicial selection has come under scrutiny in some quarters since citizens voted in November to dump three Supreme Court justices who participated in a ruling that permitted same-sex marriage. Vander Plaats was a leader of the ouster effort.

A group that supported the justices, Justice Not Politics, said Vander Plaats’ group should release the identities of donors to its ouster drive.

“Poll after poll show Iowans are rejecting the notion that our courts should be politicized or accountable to out-of-state special interests,” said Joy Corning of Justice Not Politics in a press release.

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Questionable Political Claims Fly in WI

Campaign criticisms of Justice David Prosser are challenged by an independent group that analyzes the accuracy of political claims.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact column examined a claim in a TV ad by the Greater Wisconsin Committee comparing Justice Prosser and Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The ad asserts that Justice Prosser “equals” Gov. Walker, according to PolitiFact.

PolitiFact’s conclusion: “Half True.” It explained, “the Greater Wisconsin Committee cites votes the two men made in the Legislature and votes Prosser cast on the Supreme Court — neither of which amount to strong evidence. Some of Prosser’s own statements, however, indicate a strong similarity between his beliefs and Walker’s.”

PolitiFact also examined a statement by challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg that Justice Prosser “has prejudged matters that are likely to come before the court.” Its analysis: “Barely True.” Kloppenburg “could provide no examples,” PolitiFact reported.

To learn more about the Wisconsin contest, see Gavel Grab.

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In WI Court Race, Interest Group Spending Soars

Three special interest groups have pumped $1.4 million into TV advertising in Wisconsin’s heated, nationally watched Supreme Court race. That sum could be doubled by Election Day.

More national groups are jumping in to the race, which features a former Republican legislator-turned justice against an assistant state attorney general. The election plays out against a backdrop of  a partisan brawl over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s initiative to strip public employees of most collective bargaining rights.

The Tea Party Express appealed for donations to a new Wisconsin State PAC it has set up.  Tea Party Express said it was “launching a campaign to support the conservative Supreme Court Justice and oppose the radical leftist opposing him” and was poised to air a statewide TV ad, according to a Slate article.

And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said it was launching a telephone bank to urge backing for JoAnne Kloppenburg, a prosecutor who is challenging Justice David Prosser in the April 5 election.

Of $1.7 million spent on TV advertising by Tuesday, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice showed the following distribution, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article: for ads attacking Justice Prosser, $769,000 from the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee; for ads backing him,  $415,000 from the Club for Growth and $233,000 from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. Read more

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • On the eve of U.S. Supreme Court arguments in a major employment discrimination case, Wal-Mart v Dukes, a Washington Post editorial was headlined, “Supreme Court justices aren’t political hacks in robes.”
  • He is known as the “Ten Commandments judge.” Former Chief Justice Ray Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court is considering a campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, the Associated Press reported. Last year, Moore campaigned in Iowa against retention of three state Supreme Court justices who joined a ruling that permitted same-sex marriage, according to a Radio Iowa report.

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NY Judge: Trying to "Keep the Courthouses Open"

“We’re going to try as best we can to keep the courthouses open,” New York’s chief judge said in response to another $70 million cut anticipated by a budget agreement between the governor and legislative leaders.

Before announcement of the budget accord, judicial officials already had proposed cutting $100 from a $2.7 billion budget, and the new plan nearly doubled that, according to an Associated Press article.

“At this point it’s going to be painful and it’s going to require additional layoffs and program cuts,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said.

As state courts across the nation struggle to adjust to funding shortfalls, Gavel Grab periodically is highlighting impacts for different states, and their responses.

In Alabama this week, The Birmingham News spotlighted court funding cuts in an article entitled, “Jefferson County judges plan for reduced court operations under possible Alabama proration.”

“Reliable court funding essential to justice” was the headline for an editorial in the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal.

To learn more about the court funding crisis, check out these earlier Gavel Grab posts.

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Judicial Election Plan Advances in TN Senate

A bill to require competitive election of appellate judges and state Supreme Court justices in Tennessee cleared the state Senate Judiciary Committee by a single vote.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey stepped in to cast the tie-breaking vote and rescue the legislation. The bill would replace the existing merit system for the judges’ selection.

“It is clear that we need judicial reform in Tennessee,” Ramsey said, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press article.

“I don’t necessarily think that electing judges is best for the state in the long term but the constitution is the constitution and the constitution clearly states that judges shall be elected.”

Defenders of the Tennessee Plan, as the merit system is called, contend it meets constitutional muster. They say that competitive elections would lead to special interest groups funding multimillion dollar political campaigns for the bench. You can learn more about the debate over merit selection in Tennessee from Gavel Grab.

Another supporter of merit selection is Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. He and allies contend the current system is a way to keep the courts operating while leaders propose changes to the constitution, the Associated Press reported.

Tennessee’s House has not acted on its version of the judicial election proposal.

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Justice Scalia Ticketed in Fender-Bender

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia got a ticket from U.S. Park Police Tuesday after he was faulted in a minor four-car accident on his way to the court for work.

“The justice was served,” reported a Los Angeles Times article.

No one was hurt in the accident, which occurred in suburban Virginia. The judge was given a ticket for following too closely, the Associated Press quoted a police spokesman as saying, and he faces a $70 fine.

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Editorial: 'Rethink Electing Justices' After WI Ad

A bombshell of an attack ad in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race is causing more shock waves.

“It’s time to rethink electing justices,” declared a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial today.

The editorial was headlined, “A misleading ad,” and it said the campaign spot attacking Justice David Prosser “should be Exhibit A for why electing state Supreme Court justices is a bad idea.”

An editorial in the National Review Online, meanwhile, denounced the ad and appealed for supporters of Justice Prosser to make political donations to certain third-party groups, saying conservatives nationwide ought to “make this campaign their own.”

The attack ad by the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee accused Justice Prosser, when he was a prosecutor in the late 1970s, of failing to aggressively investigate sex abuse allegations against a Catholic priest (see Gavel Grab). The Journal Sentinel editorial, after exploring details of the ad’s claims,  faulted the ad as misleading.

The editorial went on to suggest that Justice Prosser has become “the target of the kind of advertising that he and two other Supreme Court justices last year declined to condemn.” That ethics case involved Justice Michael Gableman (see Gavel Grab for background). The editorial concluded:

“Prosser’s opponent in the April 5 election, JoAnne Kloppenburg, should disavow this ad as well. And the state of Wisconsin should think again about whether the election of Supreme Court justices – which can lead to these kinds of abuses – still makes sense. We don’t think it does.” Read more

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JAS Deplores Attack Politics in WI Race

Justice at Stake deplored today an attack ad aired against Wisconsin Justice David Prosser, calling it a new example of the state’s furious descent into negative politics in state supreme court elections.

“Wisconsin has become Ground Zero of all that is wrong with state supreme court elections in America today,” Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a press release. “For the third time in four elections, special interest money and character attacks are driving the campaign.”

The ad purchased by the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee accused Justice Prosser, when he was a prosecutor in the late 1970s, of failing to aggressively investigate sex abuse allegations against a Catholic priest (see Gavel Grab).  People involved in the case have made conflicting statements about his role, and the judge has called the latest charges inaccurate and a “smear.”

According to PolitiFact Wisconsin, a respected outlet that examines the truth or falsity of political claims, the ad’s charges rate as “Barely True.”

A total of $1.4 million has been spent on TV advertising in Wisconsin so far, according to a report released today by the Brennan Center for Justice, with special-interest groups accounting for 82 percent of that. The Brennan Center is a JAS partner. Read more

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