Gavel Grab

Archive for December, 2011

Holiday Greetings from Gavel Grab

Gavel Grab extends Holiday Greetings to its readers. The staff is taking a short break, and Gavel Grab will resume updating  news about fair and impartial courts on Jan. 3, 2012.

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Justice Not Politics Introduces Fair Courts Platform to Iowa Caucuses

(Jordan Oster works for Justice Not Politics, a JAS partner organization.)

The candidates are coming. The TV ads are running. The Iowa caucuses are under two weeks away. But it will be about more than the presidential campaign when the two parties gather on Tuesday, January 3rd. Justice Not Politics has launched Caucus for Justice, an effort which empowers supporters of fair and impartial courts – from both parties – to attend these important local meetings and introduce the Fair Courts Platform Plank.

Originally formed by concerned individuals and organizations as an educational effort during the 2010 judicial retention elections, which saw three Supreme Court Justices lose their place on the bench after facing a nearly $1 million campaign effort, Justice Not Politics has since become the leader in protecting Iowa’s fair courts. During the 2011 legislative session the organization rallied against the threat of judicial impeachment, encouraged Iowans to speak out against damaging legislation aimed at altering the state’s merit selection system, and begun to build a statewide network of supporters. Read more

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Ethics Review Requested in Judge's Campaign Getting Cash

The county board chairman in Madison County, Ill. has asked the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board to carry out a judicial review of a judge’s acceptance of $30,000 in campaign contributions from law firms representing plaintiffs in asbestos-exposure litigation.

Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder recently was reassigned from hearing all asbestos cases after her campaign had received the law firms’ donations (see Gavel Grab).

“Importantly, the acceptance of certain campaign contributions creates a perception of conflict and negatively impacts the image of Madison County, the courts and of Judge Crowder,” said board chairman Alan J. Dunstan, according to an Alton Telegraph article.

“As Madison County Board chairman, I appreciate the quick action of Chief Judge Ann Callis and the other judges in the Third Judicial Circuit to remove Judge Crowder from her former docket. However, despite that action, I believe the judicial review I have requested is warranted.” Read more

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Love Kourlis: For State Courts, a Money Paradox

There’s a money paradox involving state courts: their budgets are getting slashed nationwide, yet big-money spending on contested state supreme court elections has risen sharply.

“The money’s in the wrong place,” said Rebecca Love Kourlis (photo), a former Colorado Supreme Court justice who now is executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, a JAS partner group. She was interviewed by CNN about a book she co-wrote with Dirk Olin on challenges facing the civil court system.

“[T]he cost of election for a judicial candidate is going way up and the actual budget dollars that are made available for the courts to do their job is going way down. And then, the costs of entry for potential litigants are also beyond reach in many instances because of the cost of litigation,” Love Kourlis explained.

The CNN report also relied on data from Justice at Stake about the soaring costs of judicial elections. In the past decade, spending on state high court elections more than doubled, from $83.3 million in 1990-1999 to $206.9 million in 2000-2009, according to a report issued by JAS and its co-authors.

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Democratic groups are seeking the recusal of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman from two redistricting cases. They pointed to his accepting free legal services from a law firm that helped Republicans draw the legislative boundary maps, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.
  • To prevent unpaid furloughs for 125 trial court assistants — due to a funding crunch — Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe pitched in $40,000 from his emergency fund, according to Arkansas News. 
  • Randy Evans, an Atlanta attorney, explained how to get elected or get appointed as a judge in Georgia in a column for
  • A York (Penn.) Daily Record article about judicial appointments in York County was headlined, “Judicial appointees recall process was political.”

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Failed Judicial Nominee: Local GOP Opposition Torpedoed Him

District Attorney Michael Green of Monroe County, N.Y., a Democrat, blamed local Republican opposition for his failure to get an up-or-down vote on his nomination to become a federal district court judge.

Green’s nomination was returned to the White House by the Senate along with seven other judicial nominations. Green said, according to a Rochester Business Journal article, that he did not know who specifically among local Republicans was opposing him, but it was clear that “my (local) enemies punished me for doing my job well.”

President Obama’s nominations of Green and Caitlin Halligan had won approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Halligan did not get an up-or-down vote because Senate Republicans filibustered it.

There are more than 80 vacancies on the federal bench as President Obama ends his third year in the White House, according to a Rochester Democrat and Chronicle article. When his predecessor, President George W. Bush, completed his third year in office, there were 46 federal court vacancies.

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Pennsylvania Justice Orie Melvin Figures in Grand Jury Report

The name of Justice Joan Orie Melvin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court figures prominently in a grand jury report that is part of an ongoing corruption probe, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article said.

According to the article, a former law clerk for Justice Orie Melvin, Lisa Sasinoski,  told the grand jury that political and campaign “activities took place within every judicial office of Orie Melvin during the 1991-2003 time period in which (Sasinoski) was employed by Orie Melvin.” Sasinoski told the grand jury “she was also directed by Orie Melvin herself to engage in political activities in the office.”

Janine Orie, a sister of the justice, faced new charges last week as a result of testimony by current and former workers for the judge. Janine Orie and another sister, state Sen. Jane Orie, are accused of using state-paid staff to do campaign work for their sister who is a judge. Justice Orie Melvin has not been charged.

“Regardless of the outcome, the case underscores the problems of requiring judges to campaign and raise funds like other elected officials,” said a statement by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a JAS partner group.

To learn more, see earlier Gavel Grab posts.

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Watchdog Group Seeks Ethics Probe of Wisconsin Justice

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog and JAS partner group, has formally asked the state’s Judicial Commission to investigate state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman’s acceptance of free legal services from a large law firm (see Gavel Grab).

A Wisconsin State Journal article reported that the group’s executive director, Mike McCabe, wrote that if Justice Gableman once was obliged to pay legal fees, but no longer has that obligation, then “he has received a gift in sum of those attorney fees.”

On Wednesday WDC said in a statement it had filed a new, related complaint with the Government Accountability Board.

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The impact of a political standoff between New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie and a Democratic state senator — resulting in prolonged judicial vacancies in Essex County Superior Court (see Gavel Grab) — was the topic of a lengthy Wall Street Journal article. Contested divorce trials have been suspended, causing pain for many divorcing couples.
  • Judge Amanda F. Williams, chief judge of the Superior Court of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit in Georgia, will resign effective Jan. 2, the New York Times reported. She faced misconduct allegations, and her controversial conduct was the topic of a broadcast on public radio’s “This American Life” program (see Gavel Grab).
  • Some black judges in Hamilton County, Ohio, have  contended their appointment system discriminates against minorities, according to a Fox 19 report. Two white women were recently chosen from six finalists for magistrate posts; three of the finalists were black, three were white.

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Supreme Court set March 26 to March 28 as the days it will hear arguments challenging the constitutionality of the new federal health care law, according to a Wall Street Journal article.
  • Rep. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., called it “ossified & anti-democratic” that the Supreme Court is resisting permitting TV cameras to broadcast the health care arguments, The Hill reported.
  • “Gableman voted with law firm after receiving free legal services,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported about state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, who is the target of a new ethics controversy (see Gavel Grab).

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