Gavel Grab

Archive for July, 2011

Kansas Senators Block Federal Appeals Court Nominee

Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, announced that the Committee would not vote on Steven Six’s nomination to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Leahy blocked the nomination because of the dissent of Kansas Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. The Associated Press reported that the Senators sent a letter to Leahy requesting that the Committee not accept Six’s nomination. The letter contained no reason for their opposition. When pressed for explanation, their reasons for opposition were vague, according to The Wichita Eagle, and Leahy also admitted that no disqualifying evidence had emerged throughout Six’s nomination process.

Steven Six is the former Attorney General of Kansas, and his nomination garnered widespread support:

“The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Judiciary gave Six’s nomination its highest rating. His professionalism and judgment have been praised by 29 state attorneys general, Republicans as well as Democrats. Six’s supporters have included five current and former deans of the University of Kansas School of Law and Deanell Reece Tacha, the Reagan appointee and former Kansan he would replace on the 10th Circuit.”

The Wichita Eagle report concludes:

“In his own letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee calling for Six’s confirmation, former Republican Attorney General Robert Stephan said Six had never let politics interfere with his responsibilities…Too bad the same cannot be said about Roberts and Moran…”

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Wisconsin Judge Eyes Carrying a Gun in Court, Legally

Tim Duket wants to be a gun-toting judge — in his Marinette County, Wisconsin courtroom, a Wisconsin newspaper says.

The Circuit Court judge has voiced concern about his safety, has received death threats in the past, and has given some thought to the recent shooting rampage in Norway, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

In an e-mail to Wisconsin’s Judicial Conduct Advisory Committee, Judge Duket declared his “intention to carry a concealed weapon in the courthouse and courtroom” and added, “I suspect that other circuit court judges in Wisconsin have the same intention.”

A new state law permits judges to bring a firearm into the courtroom, but Judge Duket noted that some years ago, a judge was punished for concealing a revolver in his courtroom. Judge Duket wants a clarifying ruling.

The judge took a handgun training class recently and plans to apply for a concealed-carry permit soon.

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O'Connor: Courtroom Should be 'The One Safe Place'

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, known for urging states to replace the election of judges with a merit selection system, explains why in a new online audio recording.

Justice O’Connor says during a recent session of the Aspen Ideas Festival that “the courtroom, in our country, is supposed to be the one safe place where you can have a fair, independent decision made, by someone who’s qualified to make it,” according to the audio recording posted by Minnesota Public Radio.

She discusses the landmark Caperton v. Massey ruling of the Supreme Court, involving a legal dispute that included a mining company, and a judge who benefitted from $3 million in spending by the mining company’s CEO. “One wonders, when that happens, whether it can be a fair proceeding,” Justice O’Connor said about the underlying circumstances of the case.

In Caperton, the Supreme Court said the judge who benefitted from the CEO’s largesse could not hear a case involving the coal company. “I think it was probably wise to do it,” Justice O’Connor said about the high court’s decision.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival session, she was asked questions by Jeffrey Rosen. A Slate article about the discussion was headlined, “Sandra Day O’Connor Worries About SCOTUS’s New Tack on Campaign Finance.”

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Changes to Chief Justice Selection Weighed in States

There is a trend afoot in state legislatures to tinker with the way that chief justices of state supreme courts are chosen, according to a report by the National Center for State Courts.

In one of the latest instances, a proposed constitutional amendment was announced that would abolish the system for designating the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s longest-serving justice as its chief, and have the seven justices instead vote to select the chief justice.

A blog post in The Capital Times reported this political dynamic at play: “Republicans, who now control the Legislature and the governor’s office, would surely like to have a conservative in charge of the state Supreme Court. But the only way they’re going to get one is by changing the way the chief justice is chosen. Of the seven justices, the three with the most seniority are the court’s three liberals.”

The National Center for State Courts is a JAS partner. Its report described other proposals to change the method for choosing the chief justice in Utah, Arizona, and Florida.  None of the proposed changes were adopted, the Center said.

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Swift Action Urged on Nominee from Arizona

The Senate Judiciary Committee, holding a hearing on a judicial nominee to succeed murdered Judge John Roll of Arizona, was urged to act expeditiously.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jennifer Guerin Zipps was nominated for the opening created by the death of Judge Roll, who was slain in the shooting rampage that also wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (see Gavel Grab). Before his death, Judge Roll was preparing to declare a judicial emergency, effectively relaxing the time limits set for trying accused criminals in court; it subsequently was declared by another judge.

At the committee’s hearing, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said he would be “very appreciative of an expeditious and rapid confirmation of Judge Zipps because of the judicial emergency that exists,” according to a Cronkite News article.

In addition to Judge Roll’s seat, there are two other vacant federal judgeships in Arizona.

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Supreme Court was asked to the weigh the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care overhaul, according to a New York Times article. At issue in the appeal is a ruling by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the law (see Gavel Grab).
  • “Time to let cameras into federal courtrooms,” declared the headline for an op-ed in the Miami Herald written by Talbot D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association, and lawyer Arthur J. England Jr.
  • The Institute for Justice, a conservative legal organization, has asked a federal court to strike down parts of Florida’s campaign finance laws, thereby eliminating certain disclosure requirements, the Palm Beach Post reported.

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JAS: Court Funding Cutbacks 'Crashing Home Now'

A wave of state court funding cutbacks  is delivering a blow that’s “a little bit like being hit by a tsunami,” a Justice at Stake official told a California radio interviewer Thursday.

California is facing a staggering $350 million cutback for its courts this year, thrusting into media coverage the topic of how the cuts will affect people who use the courts.

On “the Docket,” a legal affairs talk show from Orange County public radio station KUCI, JAS communications director Charlie Hall said that in the worst-hit courthouses, the wait for a divorce could grow to 18 months, a civil lawsuit may not get heard for five years — if at all, and delays for evaluating a child custody case could grow from four weeks to almost four months.

Courthouses are getting shuttered in some areas, juries are canceled for civil trials, and an overnight jailhouse stay on a nuisance arrest can lead to three nights in jail before arraignment, he said in citing examples from around the country.

“After a few years of absorbing the cuts, they are really crashing home now in ways that very much affect people who need the services of their local court,” Hall told host Evan Simon. Read more

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Partner: Wisconsin Headed Wrong Way on Disclosure

Wisconsin is bucking national trends that favor stronger campaign finance disclosure laws, says a commentary in the Milwaukee Small Business Times.

A Wisconsin legislative committee recently voted to roll back disclosure rules already approved by the Government Accountability Board. The legislation also would prohibit any future rule-making requiring disclosure of corporate electioneering (see Gavel Grab).

“Voters everywhere are clamoring for more information about the secretive organizations that are increasingly dominating our political discourse,” Mark Ladov of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote in the commentary. “So it’s baffling that Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature is taking steps to give voters even less information about the role of money in politics.”

Moreover, he added, “Wisconsin is going far beyond the Roberts Court by not only giving corporations, unions and other special interests a green light for unlimited political spending—but by ensuring that they can do so in absolute secrecy.”

The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner group. The commentary was entitled, “Wisconsin should not move backwards on disclosure.”


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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Can “order in the court” co-exist with live-blogging? Stay tuned. “Hawaii Federal Judge Favors Allowing Live-Blogging from Courtroom,” Honolulu Civil Beat reported.
  • New Mexico District Judge Pat Murdoch, accused of raping a woman, agreed to retire under a disciplinary order from the state Supreme Court, the Associated Press reported.
  • Regarding misconduct proceedings  against a Florida judge in connection with the building of what critics call the “Taj Mahal” courthouse, Randy Schultz wrote for The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board a piece entitled, “Public is victim, not judge.”

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Busy Year Ahead for Ballot Items on Courts

It’s the 2012 presidential elections that are grabbing the most headlines and speculation now. But 2012 also will be a remarkably busy year for ballot items related to state courts.

That’s the forecast offered  in a special edition of Gavel to Gavel, a publication that focuses on legislation affecting the courts. It comes from our friends at the National Center for State Courts, a JAS partner group.

Here are a few of the certain ballot items, as well as proposed ballot items getting circulation for signatures now:

  • ARIZONA: A referendum offers voters a chance to change the merit selection process in place for choosing judges for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and the trial courts in the two largest counties. If approved,  a measure of influence would be shifted from the State Bar and judicial screening commissions to the governor, who would get more options when it comes to picking judges for vacancies.
  • FLORIDA: Voters will decide whether to require state Senate confirmation of Supreme Court justices named by the governor. Voters also will be asked whether to make it easier for the legislature to repeal an administrative rule adopted by the Supreme Court. Read more

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