Gavel Grab

Archive for October, 2011

Lambda Legal Hosts NY Event on 'Justice for Sale'

Defending America’s Courts: The Fight to Maintain a Fair and Impartial Judiciary

Lambda Legal, in partnership with Demos and The American Prospect, invites the public  to a lively forum to address the growing influence of special interests on the U.S. court system, the topic of the Prospect’s October special report, “Justice for Sale.”

WHEN:Tuesday, November 1, 2011 – 6:00pm – 8:00pm
WHERE: Demos 220 Fifth Avenue 5th Floor New York, NY 10001

The core issues covered in the special report will be addressed by a panel of prominent judicial experts and journalists, including:

Viveca Novak, journalist and author of “Under the Influence,” which appeared in “Justice For Sale”
Patrick Caldwell, the Prospect’s Writing Fellow and author of “Disorder in the Court,” which appeared in “Justice For Sale”
Kevin Cathcart, Executive Director, Lambda Legal
Opening remarks by Bob Moser, Executive Editor, The American Prospect
Moderated by Tom Hilbink, Senior Program Officer for Transparency & Integrity Fund, Open Society Institute
A Wine and Cheese reception will follow the discussion.


To learn more about the American Prospect “Justice for Sale” report, see this Lambda Legal page.

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Wisconsin Justices to Discuss Guns in Their Chambers

Starting Tuesday, a new law will allow people to carry concealed weapons in most Wisconsin state buildings, including the statehouse, where the state Supreme Court is located.

However,  concealed weapons will be barred in the state Supreme Court hearing room on the second floor of the statehouse. Wisconsin’s justices soon will discuss policies regarding concealed weapons in their chambers, according to an Associated Press article.

Judges and prosecutors are allowed to carry arms under Wisconsin law.

Elsewhere, court officials were wrestling with court security issues. A Carlsbad (N.M.) Current-Argus article reported that the Eddy County sheriff said he needed more manpower to comply with a judge’s order for greater court security; a Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel article was headlined, “Video arraignment latest Anderson Courthouse security measure.”


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TIME Analyst Calls 'New Politics' Report 'Blistering'

A new report by Justice at Stake on special-interest spending in judicial elections is “blistering,” and it shows why reform is needed to ensure impartial courts, a analyst declares.

Adam Cohen, who teaches at Yale Law School, spotlighted the “New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2009-2010″ in a commentary entitled, “Judges Are for Sale — and Special Interests Are Buying.” Cohen says the reports shines light on a “scandal” that isn’t getting enough attention:

“The Occupy Wall Street movement is shining a spotlight on how much influence big-money interests have with the White House and Congress. But people are not talking about how big money is also increasingly getting its way with the courts, which is too bad. It’s a scandal that needs more attention. A blistering new report details how big business and corporate lobbyists are pouring money into state judicial elections across the country and packing the courts with judges who put special interests ahead of the public interest.”

Cohen says solutions are urgently needed. “The American ideal of justice requires neutral judges, whose only commitment is to the law,” he writes. “Judicial elections that are dominated by special interest money make a mockery of that ideal.”

The piece was part of the latest round of news media coverage of the report co-authored by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Read more

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Judicial Recusal a Major Issue at AJS Ethics Conference

At the American Judicature Society’s conference in Chicago on judicial ethics, the plenary session was devoted to how judges achieve impartiality.

Rules and procedure governing judicial disqualification vary widely across the 50 states, and they have gotten more scrutiny since the Supreme Court’s landmark Caperton v. Massey opinion in 2009. The court found a risk of bias when a West Virginia judge voted on a case involving a coal company whose chief executive had spent millions to help the judge win election.

About one sixth of approximately 360 advisory opinions issued by state judicial ethics commissions in 2010 dealt with disqualification, Cynthia Gray, head of the Society’s center for judicial ethics, said at a panel discussion, according to a Reuters article.

In August, the American Bar Association approved a resolution calling on states to adopt clear new rules for judicial disqualification. Justice at Stake has called for more rigorous rules on judicial recusal to protect fair and impartial courts (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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Manhattan View: Electing Judges, Voters are 'Rubber Stamps'

In the heart of New York City, 14 candidates soon will stand for election to 14 judicial seats in Manhattan, and each candidate is unopposed. It doesn’t lend much meaning to the term “Election Day,” Frank Lombardi suggests in the New York Daily News:

“In effect, they’ve been preelected. Voters who show up to cast ballots in the no-choice election will be mere rubber stamps.”

Lombardi provides a gritty snapshot of a Democratic-dominated city where all but one of the judicial nominees, who won a contested primary, “were nominated through procedures scripted, staged, choreographed and directed by Manhattan Democratic chieftain Keith Wright of Harlem  and his assorted party officers, district leaders and judicial delegates.”

Nominees are picked through the old fashioned clubhouse system, he writes:

“Defenders of the Manhattan way will also say they only nominate qualified candidates who pass muster with their screening committees, whose members are named by various bar associations and civic groups. But it’s the clubhouse system that ultimately decides who is nominated.” Read more

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N.C. Lawmakers Debate Changing Non-Partisan Judicial Elections

The N.C. Joint Legislative Elections Oversight Committee met Wednesday to discuss the possibility of changing the state’s non-partisan judicial election system to partisan elections. The main concerns expressed by legislators about the current system included too many judges on ballots and a greater need to inform the general public about judges running for seats, reports News 14 Carolina.

Raleigh Democratic Senator Josh Stein argued for keeping the state judicial elections non-partisan, according to a (Greensboro) News & Record article:

“Trying to infuse partisan information into electing judges isn’t healthy.”

Opposing this view, Reidsville Republican Representative Bert Jones argued for partisan judicial elections:

“Judges could certainly still run unaffiliated. But the party label gives voters at least a modicum of information upon which to base their decisions.”

The committee was split about switching to partisan judicial elections, and no agreement has  been reached. The co-chairs of the committee said there would be public hearing about the matter in the near future.

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Detroit Editorial: 'New Politics' Findings are 'Scathing'

Detroit News editorials don’t often agree with Justice at Stake. Yet an editorial in the Michigan newspaper Friday embraces as “scathing” the findings of JAS and two partner groups about weak state disclosure rules for judicial campaign spending. The editorial says:

“A new study by a set of national public interest groups notes that in the 2010 election cycle, Michigan had the nation’s most expensive state Supreme Court race. And thanks to the state’s weak disclosure laws, the source of a great deal of that money remains invisible to voters.”

“The report did not focus solely on Michigan, but its sections on the lack of accountability for spending on our high court elections is scathing.”

The editorial was part of a wave of commentary and news coverage that followed release Thursday of “New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2009-10″ by JAS, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics (see Gavel Grab).

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Former Iowa Justice David Baker Receives a Salute

Justice David Baker of the Iowa Supreme Court was dumped in 2010 by voters incensed about the court’s controversial opinion permitting same-sex marriage, who responded to an ouster drive funded heavily by out-of-state groups.

Almost a year later former Justice Baker has received a national tribute in a Huffington Post column by Andrea Lyon, who teaches law at DePaul University. Justice Baker participated in a symposium there on judicial independence, cosponsored by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Here is the heart of Lyon’s tribute:

“What was amazing during this conference … was hearing from Justice Baker, hearing his view of what had happened to him and his colleagues, and hearing the intelligence, humility, humanity and intellectual acumen with which he dissected the cause of the vote, and the ominous effects it may have going forward.”

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Bill Randles, a candidate for Missouri’s GOP gubernatorial nomination, said he prefers “open elections” over the state’s current merit selection system for picking judges, a article said.
  • Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens dismissed as lacking merit recent calls for investigations of the ethics of Supreme Court justices, or calls for changes in the ways that justices handle questions about potential conflicts of interest, according to a USA Today report.
  • A South Bend (Ind.) Tribune editorial, entitled “Helping voters judge the judges,” commended the annual judicial survey released by the St. Joseph County Bar Association, saying the survey was “especially valuable to voters.”
  • A Superior Court judge ruled against placing on the 2012 ballot a bid by GOP legislators to ask Arizona voters to ban public financing of elections, according to a Capitol Media Services article.

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'New Politics' Report Quickly Reaches Diverse Audiences

At both national and state levels, “The New Politics of Judicial Elections, 2009-10″ captured extensive news media coverage in the hours after its release Thursday.

The report (see earlier Gavel Grab post) was co-authored by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Here’s how Eliza Newlin Carney summed up its main findings for Roll Call, a journal that covers Capitol Hill:

“The nation’s court system faces multiple threats posed by escalating campaign spending, a spike in judicial impeachment challenges, and dwindling public resources, a trio of watchdog groups conclude in a report released today.”

A Huffington Post article quoted Charlie Hall, communications director for Justice at Stake, about a key conclusion from the report. ”A small group of interest groups are starting to take over Supreme Court elections in America,” Hall warned.

That conclusion was echoed by national articles from the Associated Press and Reuters, which were headlined “Interest groups flex clout in judicial elections” and “Interest groups increase spending on state court elections,” respectively. Read more

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