Gavel Grab

Archive for February, 2013

Sequestration to Impact Criminal Case Proceedings in Court

As the Friday sequestration deadline looms, court officials brace themselves for the impact of budget cuts. If Congress fails to reach a compromise, some criminal trials may have to be terminated, according to an Edmond Sun article.

Grant Price of the Federal Bankruptcy Court in Oklahoma City has reduced its number of employees in anticipation of cuts. Federal defender Susan Otto said funds for public and community defense organizations will be affected.

The article says up to 36 percent of the federal court workforce may need to be cut. “If I don’t have sufficient resources to meet payroll, there will be furloughs. I don’t have excess people to cut,” Otto said. Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin will be sentenced for public corruption charges on May 7, reports the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Melvin was found guilty of six criminal charges earlier this month.
  • The Pennsylvania judicial selection system is broken, leading to several recent scandals by state judges, argue Lynn Marks and Suzanne Almeida in a Patriot-News op-ed. Marks is the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner group.

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Court’s Approach to Voting Rights Law is Debated

The ways in which the Supreme Court considers striking down an act of Congress drew debate following sharply divided oral arguments this week (see Gavel Grab) over the constitutionality of Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Although the Senate voted 98-0 to extend the 1965 federal law in 2006, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that senators acted out of a political motive, rather than on a need for voter protection. “I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any senator to vote against continuation of this act. . . .They are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

A Washington Post editorial criticized the justice under the headline, “Justice Scalia’s contempt of Congress.” The editorial said, “This is a stunning line of argumentation. Congress is empowered to write legislation enforcing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. But if Justice Scalia doubts the purity of lawmakers’ motives, then apparently this power is limited.”

Warned a New York Times editorial, “If the Supreme Court substitutes its judgment for Congress’s, it will enable state and local governments to erode nearly half a century of civil rights gains.”

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Watchdog Hits Michigan Court Election Record for Hidden Spending

In a Detroit News op-ed, Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network reports that nearly $14 million spent on last year’s state Supreme Court election was hidden from public view. It is time for the state to require greater disclosure, he argues.

With $18.6 million spent overall on the election, Robinson writes, “The spending was a record in a Michigan Supreme Court election, and a record for lack of accountability.” A veteran investigator, Robinson dug up the spending totals through his own research in the files of broadcasters and cable systems. His MCFN is a Justice at Stake partner group.

Not only do citizens “have a right to know the source of the political speech they are hearing,” Robinson says in citing Citizens United, but there are additional concerns when it comes to hidden spending on court elections:

“Judges should not be deciding cases involving campaign supporters who have spent extraordinary amounts in support of the judge’s candidacy.”

“If millions of dollars in campaign spending can’t be traced to their source, it is impossible to know where and when such circumstances have occurred, and when a judge legitimately should be asked to stand aside from hearing a case. What you don’t know can hurt you badly, and we don’t know much about the major funders behind Michigan Supreme Court campaigns.”

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Public Funding of Court Elections Weighed in Kentucky

For the third consecutive year, Kentucky lawmakers are considering a bill for public financing of judicial elections. On Tuesday, a House committee approved a bill permitting for optional public financing of state Supreme Court campaigns.

Common Cause of Kentucky Chair Richard Beliles told legislators that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling “opened the door to a floodgate of money” for elections and fair and impartial courts may be harmed as a result, according to a Lexington Herald-Leader report.

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At Nomination Hearing, a Focus on Diversity, Court Resources

Jane Kelly, nominated for the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, emphasized the value of diversity on the bench and discussed overburdened courts in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kelly is an assistant federal public defender in Iowa. According to a Gazette article, she said  ”diversity on the bench is important but it’s also important to have qualified judges, whether they be men or women but she thought her experience of being a public defender would bring a good perspective to the bench.” Kelly, if confirmed, would become the second woman in history to sit on the appeals bench.

The BLT blog said she also was asked about the toughest issues facing the courts. ”I think one of the more significant challenges to the court right now is the sheer number of cases moving through the courts right now,” she replied. “There are an increasing number of criminal cases being brought. Unfortunately, I think that’s squeezing out some of the civil cases from getting docket spaces.”

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Michigan Governor Announces New Court Appointee

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced on Wednesday his appointment of David Viviano, chief judge of the Macomb County Circuit Court, to sit on the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Detroit Free Press reported that Snyder chose Judge Viviano to fill the opening created when Justice Diane Hathaway retired in January, shortly before she pleaded guilty to bank fraud.

“His deep respect for the judicial branch of government and his commitment to the rule of law will serve Michigan well. I have every confidence that he will be a compassionate, principled justice,” Snyder said.

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Federal Judges: Sequestration Would Deal a Devastating Blow to Courts

Should the U.S. Congress fail to halt sequestration this Friday, 5.1 percent of the budget for federal courts would be cut, threatening the public’s access to justice across the country.

U.S. District Judge Charles N. Clevert of Wisconsin and U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez of New Jersey say in a U.S. News & World Report op-ed that the cuts would “devastate the judicial branch.”

Judge Clevert was nominated to the federal bench by President Clinton; he is also a Justice at Stake board member. Judge Rodriguez was nominated by President Reagan.

Legislators must reach a deal to prevent the reductions in funding. Cuts from sequestration would lead to the closure of courthouses, the dismissal of some criminal cases and furloughs of employees, they note. Read more

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JAS Partner: Justice’s Conviction Should Spur Calls for Reform

Having justices seek endorsements and money from individuals who may appear before them in court is problematic, and ultimately led to the conviction of suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Although judges are rarely charged with corruption, Melvin’s case may spark much-needed reform for Pennsylvania’s judicial selection method, says Lynn Marks in a opinion. Marks is the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

Marks argues that what the state needs is a merit selection system for judges. Last month, state legislators put forth a proposed constitutional amendment that would end the practice of electing judges (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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Surveillance Lawsuit Tossed by Supreme Court

A legal challenge to expanded electronic surveillance of targets operating outside the United States was thrown out when the Supreme Court said the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. wrote in a 5-4 opinion that those people challenging the constitutionality of a 2008 law were unable to show it harmed them, according to a New York Times article. The law’s challengers included journalists and lawyers who represented detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

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