Gavel Grab

Archive for August, 2011

New Transparency for Missouri Court Interviews

For the first time, the public can watch interviews of candidates for the Missouri Supreme Court. According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, 13 candidates are being interviewed today and tomorrow to replace retiring Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff.

Missouri’s merit selection appointment system is the oldest in the country,  and it has come under relentless attack in recent years, by activists seeking to modify it heavily or replace it with competitive elections. In prior years, candidate interviews had been closed to the public. The current panel’s final deliberations will remain private, but the number of votes for each of three finalists will be made public.

According to the article, “former state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. said last year that opening up the nominating process would ‘strengthen the finest judicial selection plan in the country.”

John Johnston, president of the Missouri Bar, said, “The more people see of the merit-selection process that we have in Missouri, the more confident they will become that it is the best way to select our judges … There was a time when people were OK with government conducting business behind closed doors. But we’ve evolved to where people demand more transparency.”

The judicial nominating panel interviewing the panel will send three names to Gov. Jay Nixon (D), who will have 60 days to make a selection. The panel includes three members named by the Missouri bar, three citizens named by Gov. Nixon, and Chief Justice Richard Teitelman. To see the full Post-Dispatch story, click here.


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10 Years After 9/11: Atlantic Examines Terrorism and the Law

Legal analyst Andrew Cohen has named a number of “heroes and goats” in the first of a three-part series in the Atlantic on terrorism and the law.

A diverse list of heroes included Mark and Joshua Denbeaux, a father and son team that documented the lack of evidence against many detainees; then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, for resisting a secret program of warrantless surveillance; Charles Swift, a Navy lawyer forced out of the service for successfully defending a suspected terrorist; and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for authoring a ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that said “a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the Nation’s citizens.”

The goats? Then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for seeking to extend the secret surveillance program; Dick Cheney, David Addington and John Yoo, architects of a program to torture detainees; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for “meddling” in the legal process for detainees; and Attorney General Eric Holder, for poor handling of whether to try detainees in civilian courts.

According to an introduction, the three-part series will look at how the three branches of government have responded to legal issues surrounding terrorism, and a “terror law overview” of the 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001.

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Ginsburg Decries Partisan Confirmation Process

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has criticized the mounting partisanship in the judicial confirmation process, suggesting she would not have been confirmed if she were nominated today. Ginsburg, appointed by President Clinton in 1993, was confirmed 96-3 despite a career in which he had been general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union before become a federal appellate judge.

“Today, my ACLU connection would probably disqualify me,” said Ginsburg, who spoke to a crowd of about 2,000 in an event sponsored by the Southern Methodist University law school. Ginsburg also said, “I wish we could wave a magic wand and go back to the days when the process was bipartisan.”

To see a full article on Justice Ginsburg’s remarks, click here.


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Smooth Confirmation Expected for Liu

Goodwin Liu is expected to be confirmed without fanfare to the California Supreme Court on Wednesday, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Governor Jerry Brown nominated the UC Berkeley law professor to the state’s highest court in July, shortly after Liu’s nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was filibustered by Senate Republicans.

In stark contrast to his nomination to the federal appeals court judgeship, Liu’s appointment has garnered only nominal opposition.

On Monday, the high court released the state bar’s rating of Liu along with letters for and against his confirmation. The state bar has awarded Liu their highest rating of “exceptionally well-qualified,” the LA Times has reported.

Read more coverage about Goodwin Liu on Gavel Grab.

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U.S. Subsidized Effort to Oust Iowa Judges

Federal grant money intended for marriage counseling was also used in the successful effort to oust three Iowa state Supreme Court justices, the Associated Press has reported.

Grant documents obtained by AP under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Iowa Family Policy Center received $2.2 million between 2006-2010 for the purpose of providing educational and counseling services. Documents show, however, that money from the grant was also spent on anti-gay marriage campaign activities in the state.

The Family Policy Center claims it did not misuse federal funds, insisting its work has saved countless marriages. Former Iowa state senator Jeff Angelo disagreed. Angelo, who founded Iowa Republicans for Freedom, a group that supports same-sex marriage, said: “If you are putting money to support offices, phone and Internet services and the salary of someone whose main job is partisan political work, you can’t just argue in a very nebulous way this money was used to save marriage.”

According to the article, the Iowa chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union intends to investigate any links between federal grants and the high-profile efforts to oust three Iowa State Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of gay-marriage rights.

Read more about the Iowa retention elections in Gavel Grab.

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'Chokehold' Case Over, but Comments Still Flow

There won’t be a prosecution in the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s infamous “chokehold” incident (see Aug. 26 Gavel Grab), but comments continue to flow freely in the state press.

In a Wisconsin Journal Sentinel op-ed, columnist Jim Stingl combs through police interview records concerning the June 13 argument that led Justice David Prosser to put his hands around the neck of fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. As the column notes, four other justices were witnesses to the exchange, and gave widely differing accounts.

Quoting those accounts in make-you-wince detail, Stingl concludes by saying: “Bradley offers what I think is the most striking evidence of how little order in the court exists. Supposedly fearing for her safety, she has the police on speed dial while the justices are in conference. Recuse me for saying this, but right now our highest court needs a shrink more than a cop.”

In more somber language, a Green Bay Press Gazette editorial said that “it’s unacceptable for members of our state’s highest court to allow differences to escalate to a physical confrontation. This can end now, but only if each justice makes a personal decision to leave it behind. This embarrassing episode has given our state a black eye. Let’s hope now some healing will begin.”

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White House Infographic Highlights Diversity, Vacancies

A recently released White House infographic entitled “President Obama’s Judicial Nominees: Historic Successes + Historic Delays” outlines President Obama’s vision for a diverse judiciary, and draws attention to the slow rate of confirmation for his nominees to the bench.

The infographic provides an overview of the number of nominees awaiting confirmation and drills down on the “bottleneck” President Obama’s nominees face relative to recent presidents.

The graphic concludes by calculating the costs in both time and money to individuals and business from ongoing judicial vacancies which it states “hurts families and businesses by delaying critical court proceedings and increasing costs, adding uncertainty, squeezing family budgets and preventing businesses from investing and creating jobs.”

For more on delays in judicial nominations, see past Gavel Grab entries.

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No Criminal Charges for Prosser, Bradley in 'Chokehold' Incident

Special Prosecutor, Sauk County District Attorney, Patricia Barrett has announced that neither Justice David Prosser nor Justice Ann Walsh Bradley will face criminal charges for an alleged physical altercation between the two this summer.

“The totality of the facts and the circumstances and all of the evidence that I reviewed did not support my filing criminal charges,” Barrett said, according to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, in her first statement about the incident, urged the decision be respected and stressed the need for all the Justices to uphold a standard of civility and decorum on and off the bench. She also suggested making court conferences open to the public as a way to address the increased loss of civility on the court.

To learn more about the incident and its fallout, read Gavel Grab’s coverage.

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Judy Woodruff discussed the politics of confirming President Obama’s nominees to the federal bench with Committee for Justice’s Curt Levey and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy’s Caroline Fredrickson. Watch the PBS News Hour segment.
  • Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts discussed merit selection and other priorities for Pennsylvania’s courts with the Phildalphia Inquirer. PMC is a JAS Partner.
  • A New York Daily News editorial urges the Commission on Judicial Compensation, scheduled to meet on Friday, to give state judges a modest raise.
  • In an effort to make the courts more accessible to the public, the Iowa Supreme Court will begin live-streaming oral arguments, the Des Moines Register reports.

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Susan A. Feeney,  president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, wrote a column in The Newark Star-Ledger backing Superior Court Judge Paul M. DePascale’s lawsuit against the state. He challenges a new law requiring that public workers (including judges) pay more for their health benefits and pensions, and he contends it undermines judicial independence (see Gavel Grab).
  • The Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper reported on a lawsuit it filed against Gov. Neil Abercrombie seeking to gain disclosure of the names of judicial candidates whom he has considered for bench vacancies. The governor contends releasing the names would cause a “chilling effect” for would-be judicial applicants.
  • Superior Court Judge Doug Pullen of Muscogee County (Ga.), who was at the center of a judicial misconduct probe, announced his retirement. A consent order that he signed with the Judicial Qualifications Commission “resolves any allegations” stemming from three complaints against him, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported.

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