Gavel Grab

Archive for August, 2012

Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Jeannette Moll, a candidate for an Ohio appeals court seat, was fined $1,000 by a five-judge panel over campaign literature she distributed that showed her wearing a judge’s robes, according to a Coshockton Tribune article.
  • A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. struck down a Texas voter-identification law. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott pledged to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to a New York Times article.

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Court Candidates Debate Recusal in West Virginia

At a West Virginia Supreme Court candidates’ forum before a pro-business audience, there was debate over the best way to protect fair and impartial courts through judicial recusal.

Four candidates for two seats on the court appeared at the event on Wednesday before the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting and Business Summit, according to a West Virginia Record article.

Democrat Tish Chafin, a former State Bar president, has proposed changing the rules that apply to preventing justices from considering cases that could involve a conflict of interest. She proposes that a justice who declines to step aside in such a case could be taken off the case by action of the other four justices and a specially appointed judge (see Gavel Grab).

Currently, a justice can recuse voluntarily from hearing a case or elect to step aside if a party to the case requests it.

Conflict of interest concerns raised by spending to influence West Virginia court elections were highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2009 decision, Caperton v. Massey. It was because of the backlash from that case that she has proposed the change, Chafin said.

“We need to step up and change the rules,” she said. “One case can erode confidence in the judiciary. It’s about ‘perceived bias’ and improving public perception of the Court.” Read more

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Suspended Pennsylvania Justice Will not be Paid

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, suspended from the bench as she awaits trial on public corruption charges, will not get her $195,000 annual salary but will get medical benefits, the Court of Judicial Discipline ruled.

A majority opinion by the Court of Judicial Discipline said the charges against the judge are strong and warrant her suspension without pay, according to an Associated Press article.

“[W]e see this respondent as so single-mindedly occupied with achieving personal aggrandizement that she pressured, intimidated and bullied her clerks and secretaries into performing work on her political campaigns,”  President Judge Robert E.J. Curran wrote in the 5-1 opinion, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article reported.

“In these circumstances only an order of interim suspension which removes this Respondent from the public payroll has any prospect of ameliorating the harm to the public’s confidence in the judicial system which has been caused by Respondent’s conduct,” the opinion said.

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Op-Ed: History Teaches Reality of ‘Election’ of Judges

Anybody thinking about scrapping the merit-based selection of top Tennessee judges ought to beware of a lesson from history, warns a former state attorney general and criminal court judge in a (Nashville) Tennesseean commentary.

Before merit selection of top judges took effect in 1971, they were theoretically chosen in partisan elections but effectively chosen by a group of political party leaders who selected them to appear on a statewide ballot, Paul G. Summers writes.

And before merit selection was enacted, Democrats were in power, and Republicans didn’t always field a full or even partial slate of their party’s candidates for the state Supreme Court, Summers adds. In Supreme Court races, Democrats always prevailed.

Since 1994, by contrast, seats on the appellate courts are about split between Democrats and Republicans, “and that’s because of merit selection,” Summers points out. And Republicans now are now on top in the state’s political power struggle.

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California Chief Justice: ‘We Cannot Cut Anymore’

California Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye discussed the state’s court funding crisis in remarks to Napa’s court staff and the Napa County Bar Association, the Napa Valley Register reports.

To underscore the enormity of prevailing fiscal problems, Justice Cantil-Sakauye noted that in the past five years, the court’s budget has declined by $1.2 billion (more than 24 percent). “We cannot cut anymore,” she said.

In just Napa County alone, the courts have lost $1.9 million to budget cuts since last fall. As a result, the Napa courts had to lay off seven full-time and two part-time workers.

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Professor Rorie Spill Solberg of Oregon State University will be the new editor of Judicature, the American Judicature Society announced. The JAS partner group publishes Judicature, a journal of scholarship and opinion on the administration of justice and ways to improve it.
  • President Obama, chatting on a social media site, discussed Citizens United, according to NBC News. ”Over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it),” he wrote.

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Commentary: Judicial Vacancy Crisis Affects Midwesterners

With a judge set to retire from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January, Nebraska soon will join states affected by “a largely unpublicized crisis in our American justice system,” two advocates warn in an Omaha World-Herald op-ed.

A crisis in judicial vacancies “is grinding the wheels of our justice system to a halt,” caution Carol Bloch and Jan Schneiderman, co-chairs of the Nebraska Coalition on Constitutional Values.

Almost half of all Americans reside in a federal district that has been declared a judicial emergency, the authors write. Americans who enter federal courthouses pay a stiff price for the judicial vacancy crisis, they say:

“When a district goes without enough judges, cases pile up and justice then becomes a waiting game, usually won by whichever side has the most money to afford waiting the longest. It slants the playing field in favor of the plaintiff or defendant with the deepest pockets. This is not how our American justice system is supposed to work.”

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HuffPost: Another Look at Corporate Influence on Courts

Legal experts from the Center for American Progress have reprised in Huffington Post their recent report on corporate interests influencing state courts through judicial campaign spending, and Justice at Stake got a nod.

The Huffington Post article by Andrew Blotky and Billy Corriher is entitled, “Special Interests Tip the Scales of Justice in Favor of Corporations.” You can read about the underlying report in Gavel Grab.

“The problem of corporate money infecting our state judicial system will only get worse,” the article stated. “Spending by ‘independent’ groups has becoming pervasive in judicial elections, as documented by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center” for Justice, a JAS partner group.

Last October, a report by the two groups and the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that in 2009-2010, non-candidate spending in state high court elections nearly doubled as a share of total costs, compared to the previous off-year election.

Meanwhile, a New York Times article explored the possible impact that corporate and labor union spending, unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, could have in this year’s presidential and congressional elections.

As something of a paradigm, the article cited a coal company executive’s big spending in West Virginia that helped get a state Supreme Court justice elected, and the justice later ruled in favor of the donor in a case. A resulting U.S. Supreme Court decision, Caperton v. Massey, said the West Virginia judge “should have recused himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the Times summarized.

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In Partner Blog, Merit Selection Ballot Items Detailed

In three states where merit-based selection of judges is under assault, voters will be asked to weigh related ballot measures this fall. A series of articles in Gavel to Gavel, the blog of the National Center for State Courts, has details and context about the proposals.

In Florida, the judicial selection process would be changed in several ways, including by requiring state Senate confirmation of picks made by the governor. Six other states currently provide for legislative confirmation of a governor’s appointees, according to the blog.

In Missouri and Arizona, ballot measures would change how many names get submitted to a governor by screening commissions. In Missouri, the governor would get four names — up from three — for appellate judgeships; in Arizona, the list would be expanded from at least three to at least eight names.

“No state has Arizona’s Prop 115 minimum of 8 names for a vacancy,” Gavel to Gavel reports.

Still another post examines changes that Arizona’s ballot measure would make to extend judicial terms, from six years to eight years for the state Supreme Court and from four years to eight years for the Superior Court. The post looks at breakdowns from other states for judicial terms.

To learn more about opinion regarding the ballot proposals in these states, check out prior Gavel Grab articles by clicking here for Florida, here for Missouri and here for Arizona. The National Center for State Courts is a JAS partner group.


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Editorial: Pennsylvania Court Needs Seventh Justice to Avoid Gridlock

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court needs to be able to deliver firm resolutions on cases, and not be split down the middle in its decisions, a (Harrisburg) Patriot-News editorial argues.

Currently, only six justices are actively serving on the bench. The seventh, Justice Joan Orie Melvin, has been suspended on corruption charges. The high court has been understaffed in this manner since May, the editorial says.

In the coming weeks, the court will hear arguments in three high profile cases which could have “an impact on the entire state” (see Gavel Grab). If any of the cases end in a three-three deadlock, it would be an “injustice,” the editorial argues. The court should appoint an interim seventh justice as a solution, it says.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association urged that approach in June. “It is of great importance to lawyers and litigants that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court return to its full complement of seven active justices as soon as possible,” wrote the state’s bar association president, Thomas G. Wilkinson Jr.

The editorial argues in favor of selecting a senior judge who has retired to fill the vacant spot on an interim basis. While this could cause concerns of political bias, it says, a majority of the current justices is needed to approve a nominee. At least one justice would need to side with those of the other political party for an interim appointee to win approval.

A lower court ruling will stand when justices split evenly on a decision, potentially rendering the state Supreme Court useless, the editorial states. Pennsylvania’s governor cannot appoint a new justice until Melvin is convicted and steps down, if that occurs.

If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wants to do its job, the editorial says, “it will fill its seventh chair and get back to the business of deciding things with finality.”

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