Gavel Grab

Archive for May, 2013

Commentary: PA Election System Turns Judges ‘Into Politicians’

Chief Justice Ron Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is standing for another term in a retention (yes-or-no) election this fall. Two activists who want to see him removed recently issued a report that branded him with a far-ranging slew of mismanagement allegations and critiques of his handling of some cases (see Gavel Grab).

Now a (Harrisburg) Patriot-News columnist asks if this is any way to choose judges. ”Making judges behave like candidates means they face the same cruel political winds as any other office-seeker. And let’s face it, bad headlines stick,” John L. Micek writes.

“We’re basically making them into politicians,” said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC).  “They have to run for office and seek endorsement from interest groups and raise money … it’s a very partisan process for an office that’s supposed to be nonpartisan.”

Micek discusses how PMC is advocating for a change, to get rid of partisan judicial elections Read more

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JAS Featured in Article on Emergency Funding for Federal Courts

Court officials and independent groups are voicing their support for a request by the federal courts for $73 million in emergency funds, including $41 million for federal public defenders, reports the Legal Newsline.

The article notes that Justice at Stake sent a letter to congressional leaders this week urging them to approve the funding and avoid further damage to the federal courts from sequestration (see Gavel Grab).

“This supplemental is essential to mitigate the harms of sequestration and to ensure that the judiciary is able to provide access to justice for the people of this nation,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg wrote.

Julia S. Gibbons, chair of the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget wrote in a letter earlier this year that the current fiscal crisis faced by the Judiciary could “seriously compromise the Constitutional mission of the United States courts.” Read more

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Chicago Law Students Get Up-Close View of Life on the Bench

The University of Chicago Law School was visited by five judges this past year as part of the school’s new Distinguished Visiting Jurists program.

According to the Law School Office of Communications, the program is designed to give students an inside view of the judiciary and the role judges play.

The five visiting judges each gave a lunch talk about their experiences on the bench.

“Judges reinforce, supplement, and challenge what students get in the classroom, and the judges get to speak to some of the best soon-to-be lawyers in the country. We’ve learned a great deal from the judges this year, and we hope they have learned from us as well,” said Professor Lior Strahilevitz, who organized the speaker series.

Judge Thomas L. Ambro of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Thomas B. Griffith of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Gary Feinerman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Judge Reena Raggi of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Robert Sack of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals all spoke during the Sidebar: Conversations with the Bench workshop.

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Public Defenders May Face More Furlough Days

Federal public defenders will face a maximum furlough time of 20 days, instead of 15, under a change in policy implementing recent across-the-board federal budget cuts and reported by the Blog of Legal Times.

The budget cuts, called sequestration, were triggered March 1. Cuts affecting federal public defenders are among those that have drawn the most attention as the federal judiciary works to absorb the cuts (see Gavel Grab).

District of Columbia Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer said the furloughs were bad for morale. “It’s very difficult to take care of matters that deal with clients when you’re not in the office,” he said. Kramer also said that so far, furloughs were having an impact on scheduling of cases but not in substantive ways.

This week Justice at Stake supported in a letter a recent request by the federal courts  for an emergency infusion of $73 million, including $41 million for federal public defenders.

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Editorial to Senate: Do ‘People’s Business’ and Fill Court Vacancies

“The Senate should be doing the people’s business, not blocking it,” a Portland (Me.) Press Herald editorial declared in urging Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and fellow Republicans not to filibuster three appeals court nominees likely to be announced soon by President Obama.

There has been speculation that if Obama nominates three individuals simultaneously to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Republican senators may launch a mass filibuster. The editorial zeroed in on the important role of the D.C. Circuit in deciding an array of complex regulatory disputes, and it called for filling vacancies on the court:

“A slowdown in this court slows down the whole government. You would expect that vacancies on this court would be filled promptly. But that is not the case.”

The editorial disagreed with Collins and those fellow Republicans who are supporting an effort to reduce the D.C. Circuit by three judgeships (see Gavel Grab), saying “The Republicans should not try to win with procedural maneuvering what they could not get at the polls.” It concluded Read more

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Blog: Avoid West Virginia’s Judicial Election Mistakes

North Carolina courts are at risk of becoming a battleground for high stakes judicial races if the state legislature does away with its public financing program for judicial candidates, argues Doug Clark in a (Greensboro) News & Record blog.

Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice John F. McCuskey and state legislator John B. McCuskey traveled to North Carolina last week to urge state lawmakers to uphold the program (see Gavel Grab).

“As a protector of the state’s tax dollars, I believe this is a good expenditure of the people’s money, to ensure that they believe that the judges have been elected to fairly adjudicate every matter, be it criminal or civil, are doing so in an impartial manner,” said Del. McCuskey. Read more

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Judicial Confirmation Showdown Ahead? U.S. Senate in Spotlight

If a flurry of news media reports is a sign, President Obama’s expected announcement soon of three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will put judicial confirmation politics in a rare spotlight.

Although many Americans may not be familiar with it, the court is widely considered the second most influential appeals bench in the nation and a stepping stone for the Supreme Court. Some Republican senators are pushing to reduce the 11-member D.C. Circuit court by three judgeships and are accusing Obama of “court-packing.” And if Republicans pursue a showdown with the president, such as an attempt to filibuster three nominees, Senate Democratic leaders could move to change procedural rules in response.

Gavel Grab mentioned on Tuesday a news report that Obama plans to nominate simultaneously three individuals for the vacancies. On Wednesday, a White House blog post by Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the president, fired back at advocates of shrinking the D.C. Circuit. “[T]his is court packing in reverse and a cynical attempt to manipulate the third branch of government,” Pfeiffer wrote. Read more

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Ricky Polston ended the court’s practice of sending letters congratulating Eagle Scouts earlier this year after the Boy Scouts of America were debating whether or not to admit gay members. The Tampa Bay Times reports that Polston did not end the ritual over his personal views, but rather on the possibility that litigation concerning the Boy Scouts might come before the court.
  • While some Americans may have forgotten about attempts to pass “foreign-law” bans in recent years, the anti-sharia law movement is still alive and well in some states, writes Andrew Cohen in a Brennan Center analysis. Cohen notes a report released last week by the Brennan Center, a Justice at Stake partner organization, that concludes that the “new wave of foreign-law bans are still anti-Muslim in their intent.”

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Michigan Ex-Justice Sentenced to Prison Time for Bank Fraud

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway was sentenced on Tuesday to 366 days in prison. She had pleaded guilty earlier to committing bank fraud by concealing holdings in the short sale of a home.

“I stand before you a broken person,” she told U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara. “I am ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated and disgraced,” she said, according to an Associated Press report.

“We do not ask you to sentence Diane Hathaway based on who she is,”  Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Lemisch told the court. “We ask you to sentence Diane Hathaway based on what she did.”

Her defense attorney, Steve Fishman, had argued that losing her prominent job was severe enough punishment for Hathaway. The former judge is depicted above, with her husband, in an Associated Press photo taken Jan. 29.

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Editorial: Kansans Watch as Court System is ‘Decimated’ by Attacks

The time-tested, nonpartisan Kansas court system is being “decimated” by legislative attacks from “ultraconservatives” unhappy with court decisions that didn’t go their way, a Kansas City Star editorial declares.

The editorial is headlined, “Political attacks on court imperil justice in Kansas.” It presents one of the most outspoken editorial board condemnations this legislative season of changes adopted, and proposed, to the way Kansas has picked top judges through a merit-based selection system.

It begins by extolling the success of the Kansas merit plan in buffering impartial courts from politics:

“For more than a half century the Kansas nonpartisan court plan has stood as one of the state’s most responsible and respected institutions.

“Judges selected under the plan have earned the reputation of ruling impartially and sticking closely to the law and evidence. Importantly, the plan shields the justice system from the raw politics that has stained many judges picked by partisan means.” Read more

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