Gavel Grab

Archive for April, 2014

National Partisan Group Targets Judgeships; JAS Voices Concern


A national GOP organization devoted to electing state and local officials is going to target judgeships, the Washington Post reported. Justice at Stake Executive Director reacted with the following statement:

“Courts in judicial election states are already under growing pressure from big-spending interest groups.  Ideological litmus tests will only increase pressure on judges to act like politicians and be accountable to special interests instead of the law and the Constitution.” 

The Republican State Leadership Committee announced that its Judicial Fairness Initiative would be targeted at supporting judge candidates who have conservative ideologies. Read more

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Court-Packing Measure Approved by Florida House

A proposed constitutional amendment that would enable a Florida Supreme Court-packing scheme advanced closer to a statewide referendum when the state House approved it 74-45 along partisan lines on Wednesday.

It would allow an outgoing governor to make prospective appointments of judges, and if enacted would permit the next governor to choose a majority of the state Supreme Court. The state Senate approved the measure earlier, and for it to become law, it must win approval of 60 percent of voters on Election Day, according to a Miami Herald blog post.

The measure specifically would allow a governor who is stepping down to make appointments to the bench for vacancies that occur on inauguration day, in order to clarify uncertainty in existing law as to whether such appointments are made by the arriving, or departing, governor. Read more

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A mandatory state retirement age of 70 for Pennsylvania judges was upheld by a panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to the Associated Press.
  • U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who are close personal friends, voiced sharply clashing views about regulating air pollution in a court decision this week, Reuters said. The “strange benchfellows” each read aloud in court from their opposing opinions.
  • Judge Barry Cohen of Palm Beach County, Fla., was reprimanded publicly by the Florida Supreme Court for his remarks that had raised questions about his impartiality as a judge, according to the Sun Sentinel.
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'Disgraceful Outcome' in Oklahoma Botched Execution, JAS Says

Justice at Stake decried on Wednesday a “governmental trainwreck” in Oklahoma that “resulted in a disgraceful outcome last night.” An Oklahoma inmate survived a botched execution by lethal injection and died of a heart attack later.

The failed execution of Clayton D. Lockett, a convicted murderer, burst overnight into a national news story, with the White House saying the case fell short of administering the death penalty humanely, according to the New York Times.

Justice at Stake focused in its statement upon discord among the three state government branches that had led up to last night. The execution attempt followed the governor’s announcement that she would disregard a stay of execution  put in place by the state Supreme Court, and her own decision to impose and then revoke a stay. JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said:

“The governmental trainwreck in Oklahoma, where a court-ordered stay of execution was overturned amid pressure to impeach the justices, resulted in a disgraceful outcome last night. Political tampering with the courts led to a state torturing one of its prisoners to death.  Our courts were created to protect rights and force deliberation, and this rush to execution reinforces how important it is for us to be vigilant about protecting courts’  authority.” Read more

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Bipartisan Leaders Kick Off Tennessee Judicial Selection Campaign

Former Sen. Thompson

Bipartisan leaders kicked off this week an initiative to build voter support for a proposed constitutional amendment to help preserve an appointive process for selecting appellate Tennessee judges.

“The way we choose our judges — the importance of our judges having the confidence of our people — is the fundamental bedrock of any government,” said former Republican U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything else.” He joined Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, and former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, at the kick-off event, The Tennessean reported.

In a Tennessean op-ed, Thompson and Bredesen wrote, “Passing Amendment #2 will not only bring clarity and certainty to the way Tennesseans choose our Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges, but it also will add new accountability and a stronger voice for Tennessee voters in the selection process.” Failure to pass the amendment, they added, “could lead to out-of-state special interest groups trying to buy our courts and influence the selection of our judges.” Read more

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Law Profs: Don't Find Lawyers 'Guilty by Association' With Clients

CapitolflagMore than 1,000 law professors have written to leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee voicing their “deep concern” about the debate that surrounded the Senate’s vote on attorney Debo Adegbile’s nomination for a top Justice Department post.

During the debate, some critics voiced opposition to the nomination based in part on Adegbile’s having represented the convicted killer of a police officer.  The Senate went on to block Adegbile’s confirmation at least temporarily (see Gavel Grab). According to the Legal Ethics Forum blog, the law professors wrote:

“While we do not take a position on this or any other nominee, we are deeply concerned that the vote and the rationale publicly articulated by a majority of Senators rejecting Mr. Adegbile sends a message that goes to several core values of the legal profession. These include the right to counsel, the importance of pro bono representation, and the importance of ensuring that constitutional protections are afforded to every criminal defendant regardless of the crimes for which they are accused.” Read more

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JAS Quoted in News Reports on N.C. Court Primary Spending

Cash-gavel-sold1North Carolina’s Supreme Court primary has become a “free-for-all” with a wave of outside funding, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reports while quoting Justice at Stake about the soaring spending.

“Interest groups that spend this much, this early, on attack ads are playing for keeps,” the article quoted Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, as saying. “After enjoying years of insulation from big-money campaigns, North Carolina is headed for its second straight big-spending circus, with judges pressured to raise millions from the parties who appear before them, and voters worried that justice is for sale,” Brandenburg added.

The article, also published by the (Charlotte) Observer,  mentions an ad critical of Justice Robin Hudson aired by Justice for All North Carolina, an outside group that has received $650,000 from a national organization, the Republican State Leadership Committee. Justice Hudson is opposed in the three-way primary May 6 by Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson and attorney Jeanette Doran.

Advertising expenditures in the contest for Justice Hudson’s seat had surpassed $1 million on Tuesday, available public records indicated, Read more

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Expert Opinion Divided on Possible Recusal by Wisconsin Judges

Challenges to a campaign finance investigation in Wisconsin are continuing to spur questions as to whether certain state Supreme Court justices ought to recuse themselves, and one of the state’s leading newspapers now has reported on the issue.

In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reporter Patrick Marley has written a news article headlined, “John Doe probe raises issues of potential conflicts with justices.” Marley interviewed legal ethics experts and found divided opinion as to whether one or more of the court’s four conservative justices ought to step aside.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth is one of the targets of the investigation, which is looking at possible illegal coordination between outside groups and recall campaigns (see Gavel Grab). In recent years the group has spent about $1.8 million in support of election of the four conservative justices. Read more

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JAS: Spending in N.C. Supreme Court Primary Tops $1 Million

Advertising expenditures in the North Carolina Supreme Court primary contest have topped a total of $1 million, including spending by candidates and by independent groups, Justice at Stake reported on Tuesday, based on publicly available records.

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdIncumbent Justice Robin Hudson is seeking re-election, and she faces challengers Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson and Jeanette Doran in the three-way primary to be held on May 6. The two top vote-getters will face off in November’s general election.

“This kind of spending in a judicial primary would have been unheard-of just a short time ago,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, in a statement.

“What compounds the problem this year is that North Carolina has just done away with its public financing program for judicial elections. These judges now find themselves in a superheated political climate, where they feel forced to solicit donations from parties who could appear before them.  And when deep-pocketed special interests start spending on their own to air ads, Read more

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Retraction Asked for Political Ad About Lawyer's Defense Work

James R. Silkenat, the American Bar Association president, has written the Republican Governors Association and asked it to take down a political ad that disparages a candidate for his legal defense work.

In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, is opposed for reelection by Vincent Shaheen, a Democrat, attorney and state senator. A screen shot from the ad states: “Vincent Shaheen. Protects criminals. Not South Carolina.”

“The Republican Governors Association ad sends a disturbing message to lawyers — that their clients’ past actions or beliefs will stain their own careers, especially if they want to serve their country in public office,” Silkenat wrote to the governors group and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, its chairman, according to The State newspaper. Read more

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