Gavel Grab

Archive for February, 2012

Justice at Stake Hires Two New Senior Staff Members

Justice at Stake is pleased to announce the hiring of two new senior staff members.

Liz Seaton was named Deputy Director for Policy and Advocacy, a new position at JAS, Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said today. In addition to her senior management responsibilities, Seaton will oversee JAS’s federal, state, diversity, and access to justice activities.

Seaton comes from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where she served as State Policy Director, as well as Managing Attorney and Director of Projects. She is the former Deputy Director of Programs at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy and the former General Counsel and Legal Director of the Human Rights Campaign. Read more

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Palm Beach Paper Blasts ‘Terrible Bill’ on Judicial Panels

A Palm Beach Post editorial by Randy Schultz criticizes the Florida House for passing ”a  terrible bill” that would give the governor ”too much control” over the state’s court system. On Friday, the House voted on HB 971, which would allow the governor to replace members of judicial nominating commissions at will, and let those appointees serve as long as the governor desires (see Gavel Grab).

The editorial decries the proposal, arguing that the commissions can now pack the courts with the governor’s hand-selected judicial nominees. Schultz calls the legislation a hypocritical move by a state House that claims to favor small government but allows the “executive branch… to run the judicial branch.”

The Florida legislature has made several attempts in recent years to change the makeup of the judiciary. In 2011, The House approved an amendment that would have added three justices to the Supreme Court, and split it into civil and criminal divisions. Schultz writes that there was no objective evidence to support the bill, and it did not pass the Senate.

The editorial ironically calls the current bill a “bold” move on the legislature’s part, and adds: “The Senate should do with this year’s boldness what the Senate did with last year’s boldness: Kill it.”

To read more about current issues facing Florida’s judicial system, see Gavel Grab.

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Editorial: Wisconsin Court Should Not Close Doors on the Public

Cloistering itself from the public won’t make the embattled Wisconsin Supreme Court’s problems go away, says a Wisconsin State Journal editorial, which criticized the court’s decision Monday (see Gavel Grab) to move its administrative hearings behind closed doors.

The editorial describes how the court has become increasingly partisan after a series of highly politicized and expensive judicial elections. Justice Pat Roggensack has argued that holding public conferences to discuss policies and budgets takes away from the justices’ time on cases. However, the editorial dismisses this notion.

The editorial says the justices may not behave better “behind closed doors,” either. There is concern after a conflict erupted last year between Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and David Prosser. Bradley accused Prosser of choking her during an argument in her chambers.

The editorial writes that open hearings have encouraged civility among justices and worked to build public trust and education.

Wisconsin Supreme Court justices are elected, and the editorial finds that closing off the court will mean even less information is available for the voters to make their decisions. Some have expressed concern that this latest measure will affect the fairness and impartiality of the court.

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The White House has issued a “fact sheet” outlining procedures to implement Section 1022 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Section 1022 is the military detention provision of the NDAA.
  • A Cincinnati Enquirer article tells the harrowing family story of Jeffrey Hopkins, a federal bankruptcy judge in Cincinnati, and how that story led to his decision to pursue a career on the bench. Judge Hopkins serves on the JAS Board of Directors.
  • The Miami Herald reports that the traditionally “subdued” Florida Supreme Court has shown signs of partisan tensions as the justices grapple with redistricting maps.

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NY Times: Citizens United Upended State Campaign Spending Laws

A New York Times editorial lambasts efforts to overturn Montana’s century-old ban on direct corporate campaign spending on candidates and committees.

The Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 is seen by many as a challenge to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling permitting unlimited campaign spending by corporations, labor unions, and trade associations.

In December, the Montana Supreme Court voted 5-2 to restore the state ban, after a lower state court had found it unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Montana high court’s decision, and two of its dissenters in Citizens United went so far as to suggest it is time to reconsider that landmark decision (see Gavel Grab).

The editorial points out that in states with corporate spending bans, individual contributions comprise about half of funds raised by candidates. In states without a comparable ban, the figure is about a quarter. It concludes by saying:

“Montana’s campaign spending law arose from a history of fighting political corruption…  At stake is whether state elections will be decided by corporations that are allowed to spend unlimited amounts to influence the results.”

To learn more, see Gavel Grab’s coverage of the Montana case.

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Justice Not Politics Releases New Website

Justice Not Politics, a nonpartisan coalition in Iowa, has launched a new website in support of Iowa’s courts. The website highlights a petition and open letter to the legislature requesting full funding for the state’s judicial system. To view the website and petition, click here.

In its open letter to Iowa lawmakers, Justice Not Politics states that budget cuts are hindering the courts, preventing them from addressing cases in a prompt and timely manner. Staff cuts combined with a growing caseload have restricted the Iowan public’s access to justice.

The nonprofit organization works to maintain fair and impartial courts, and a successful judiciary. To read more about Justice Not Politics, click here.


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Supreme Court Cameras Bill won’t Pass Before Healthcare Case

The upcoming Supreme Court case over challenges to the healthcare reform law has increased interest in legislation allowing cameras into the court room. While the bill on cameras has bipartisan support in Congress, it will not pass before oral arguments are heard in March, according to an article in The Hill.

The legislation was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this month (see Gavel Grab), but is still awaiting a floor vote. Proponents of the bill have tied it to public interest in the healthcare debate.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said the bill would “deepen Americans’ understanding” of the Supreme Court. There is a high level of interest in the case given its magnitude. Representative Gerry Connolly has called oral arguments on the healthcare reform a “seismic event.”

According to the article, C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb wrote a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts last fall asking for cameras to be allowed in the courtroom. Roberts has not yet responded to the request.

Critics of cameras are worried that publicizing courtroom proceedings might turn them into a “circus.” Tom Fitton, president of the conservative special interest group Judicial Watch has said that “the last thing we need in the Supreme Court is justices and lawyers mugging for the cameras. It’s already too political as it is.”

Other groups see cameras as a positive feature. They say that the court’s decision will affect everyone, and everyone has a right to hear the arguments. Courtroom cameras are becoming more commonplace around the country, and are even allowed in the Second and Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (see Gavel Grab).

The justices are also split over the issue. The newest member of the court, Elena Kagan, has called it a “terrific” idea. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has also expressed her support for televising oral arguments, as has Justice Samuel Alito. Roberts has not expressed a view on one side or the other, and has been hesitant to answer questions regarding cameras. The objecting justices have expressed their opinions the most strongly out of the nine.

Although it’s becoming unlikely that cameras will be allowed in the courtroom in March, Congress may make a decision on the bill in the coming months.


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Wisconsin High Court Closes Public Administrative Conferences

The Wisconsin Supreme Court decided this week to close its administrative conferences to the public, according to Bill Lueders of Wisconsin Watch. The justices voted 4-3 in favor of Justice Patience Roggensack’s proposal to close the meetings.

The court has held public meetings on most administrative matters since 1999. The justices opposed to the measure believe it to be an error that will damage the court’s relations with the public.

“This would be a mistake to retreat from giving the public the opportunity to see what we do and how we do it,” Justice N. Patrick Crooks said. “Please don’t do this.”

Justice Roggensack stated that the proposal was designed to focus the court’s resources on its primary functions of deciding cases and issuing opinions. “To sit out here and philosophize about issues is really not the best use of our time,” Roggensack said.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has experienced sharp divisions over the last few years between the more conservative and liberal-leaning justices. According to an article in the Wausau Daily Herald, the conflict reached a peak last June when Justice Ann Walsh Bradley accused Justice David Prosser of choking her in her office. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson proposed that all court proceedings be open to the public after the incident.

Former Justice Janine Geske, who was on the bench when the conferences were opened in 1999, expressed disappointment over the decision. “I’m really sad in this time of distrust of government and distrust of the court that they’re not going to hold the conference so people can see them be present,” Geske said.

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Merit Issues Debated in 4 States

Newspaper commentaries spoke favorably of merit selection in three states-Kansas, Tennesee, and Wisconsin-while an Iowa newspaper reported that Gov. Terry Branstad (photo) was moving to change the political makeup of judicial nominating commissions that screen candidates for the bench.

In Kansas, the Lawrence Journal World praised a vote last week by the state Senate that rejected changes to that state’s system for appointing appellate court judges. But the article also warned that other changes to the state’s merit system might be considered. The editorial added: “With all the big issues facing legislators this year, there is no reason for them to spend more time on efforts to change a system that’s working well for the state.”

In Tennessee, a Knoxville News opinion column, by former attorney general Paul G. Summers, likewise hailed merit selection as more appropriate for judges than partisan contested elections. Summers called on the legislature to enact a plan by the governor and senior lawmakers that would let voters put merit selection into the state constitution in 2014.

Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Northwestern said that growing spending and animosity in state high court elections justify a switch to merit selection, in which a nonpartisan commission screens a slate of candidates, from which the governor appoints judges to the bench. The paper’s editorial said:

“Supreme Court elections have successively grown more expensive and combative, with ideological sparring turning into a highly publicized fracas between members of the once well-regarded high court. … Merit selection systems are not a panacea by any means, but they do offer some safeguards to the excesses we’re currently seeing.”

The Sioux City Journal in Iowa reported that Branstad, a Republican governor, had appointed numerous Republicans to judicial nominating commissions, with a spokesman noting that many districts previously had no Republicans on the nominating commissions. The article noted that a number of nominees to the commissions openly oppose the merit selection system.

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Governor Urged to Name Woman to Indiana Court

An editorial in Indiana’s Journal Gazette has urged Governor Mitch Daniels to appoint a woman to the state’s Supreme Court. The five-member court is currently comprised of all men. With Chief Justice Randall Shepard’s upcoming retirement, the governor has the opportunity to fill the vacancy with what would be the state’s second woman justice in the court’s history.

In Indiana, the governor appoints judges to vacancies based on recommendations from the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission. Last week, the JNC forwarded three names to Governor Daniels: Jane Seigel (photo), Mark Massa and Cale Bradford. Seigel is the only woman in the final three from 15 original candidates.

Indiana and Idaho are the only two states nationally to have no women on their supreme courts. The editorial said the court’s reputation and achievements are tainted by the lack of gender diversity on the bench. It also stated that a third of the practicing members of the Indiana State Bar are women, and there is certainly one in those ranks who deserves to be a Supreme Court justice. Seigel’s professional history and experience make her more than qualified to fill the position, the editorial added.

In other diversity news, former Governor Edwin Edwards spoke about the importance of diversity and its impact on Lousiana’s courts at the Louisiana Judicial Council of the National Bar Association’s annual luncheon on February 25th.

“That is very important because a third of our population is in the black community. I thought/think that they [black community] should have the right to vote on black lawyers who wanted to be judges. And I think they [black judges and attorneys] have served the legal community and the general population very well.”

Before 1992, the year Governor Edwards started his fourth term as Louisiana’s governor, there were six African American judges in Louisiana; there are currently 78 African American judges. You can read more about the governor’s remarks here.

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