Gavel Grab

Archive for January, 2015

Change in Store for Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Change is on the docket for Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court in 2015, as voters decide who will fill the three seats in question, and possibly raise the mandatory retirement age for judges.

After three judges retired last year – two in scandal and one as a retiree – then Governor Corbett nominated Justice Correale Stevens to fill one of the seats. The two others are still empty, but the Allentown Morning Call reports that Governor Wolf plans to fill the other two with interim judges soon. The wisdom of appointing two judges to the bench is being debated throughout the state, because his nominees would likely only serve until after the November election. Patriot News reports that although The Court would welcome any temporary colleagues, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor said they are “perfectly capable of operating with five justices for a one-year period.

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Editorial: Proposals Reflect Bid for ‘Control’ of KS High Court

Kansas-Flag-2An effort by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, Secretary of State Kris Kobach and others to scrap the existing system for choosing state Supreme Court justices is “about control” of what should be an independent court, a Salina (Ks.) Journal editorial warns.

“The current system offers the best chance of an independent judiciary, which is one of the bedrock protections of our democracy. The fact that Brownback, Kobach and others want you to vote to change that should be a red flag,” the editorial says.

Proposals in the legislature would get rid of the current system involving a nonpartisan nominating commission that screens applicants and recommends finalists to the governor, who would make an appointment. Proposed alternatives are for direct election of the justices or appointment by the governor, subject to state Read more

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Judicial Recusal Bill Weighed in Montana Legislature

A bill under debate in the Montana legislature would require a judge to step aside from hearing a case if he or she received $35 in campaign donations from a party or lawyer involved in the case, according to Gavel to Gavel.

According to an Associated Press report, “A slate of judges, attorneys and a representative of the State Bar of Montana opposed the measure. They argued that widespread disqualification would ensue under HB 255 given the high number of attorneys that contribute to campaigns.”

Justice at Stake has called in general for more rigorous recusal rules, in order to protect fair and impartial courts when judges are elected. JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed in September 2011: Read more

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Brownback Makes Second Court Appointment Under New Law

urlKansas Gov. Sam Brownback has announced his nomination of Kathryn Gardner to the state Court of Appeals. She has served as a longtime law clerk to a federal judge, as an assistant attorney general and as a lawyer in private practice.

It was the second time Brownback has nominated a Court of Appeals judge under a new law that eliminated a judicial nominating commission screening process, called merit selection. Before the Republican-dominated legislature dumped that process, Gardner applied for two different openings on the appeals court, the Associated Press reported.  She was not recommended by the commission as a finalist either time.

Brownback called the nominee thoughtful and intelligent. He noted that she writes cowboy poetry and called her a “renaissance woman.” Her nomination must be confirmed by the state Senate. Read more

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Judge’s Campaign Remarks Now Basis for Recusal Request

frenchDid Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith L. French display potential bias for fellow Republicans in elected office with her remarks at a campaign rally last year? The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association argues that she did, and as a result she should step aside from hearing an appeal of a case in which it is a party.

The controversy is the subject of a Columbus Dispatch article entitled, “Union wants Ohio Supreme Court’s Judith French off case, alleging bias.” The article says Justice French made the following remarks on Oct. 25 at a political rally:

“I am a Republican, and you should vote for me. … Let me tell you something, the Ohio Supreme Court is the backstop for all those other votes you are going to cast” for Republican candidates. “So, forget all those other votes if you don’t keep the Ohio Supreme Court conservative.” Read more

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One Legal Analyst Examines Alabama Top Judge’s Stand on Marriage

Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court is actually right in saying that state courts don’t have to follow what a federal trial or appeals court says on an issue of law, legal journalist Lyle Denniston writes at the Constitution Daily blog.

“That is one of the oddities of a divided court regime – a federal system and a separate and quite independent state system,” Denniston explains.  Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • SCOTUSblog reports that several new books about Supreme Court Justices will be available in 2015, including The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – available now – which “has contributions by journalists, scholars, judges, and practicing lawyers”; a book on Justices Ginsburg and O’Connor by Linda Hirshman; and a children’s book about Justice Sonya Sotomayor.
  • An article from The Daily Beast describes a possible conflict of interest in Oklahoma, where Judge Jerome A. Holmes has decided not to recuse himself from a death penalty appeal. Holmes defended the trial court’s sentencing and mocked the DA’s claims of racial prejudice in an op-ed in 2002.
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Column: Solution to Williams-Yulee – ‘Eliminate Judicial Elections’

Guest columnist Joe Brown has a simple solution to eliminate the controversy surrounding the Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar case (see Gavel Grab for background) in front of the U.S. Supreme Court… “Appoint judges instead of electing them.”

Brown’s column in The Tampa Tribune discusses when he first realized he was not in favor of judicial elections.

“The idea first came to me about 12 years ago after a string of frustrating interviews with judicial candidates that left me with no idea about their qualifications to sit on the bench. “

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Friendship Nine Activists Exonerated; Hope to ‘lead by example’

Historical marker outside the diner.

Historical marker outside the diner.

The Friendship Nine, civil rights activists who were arrested in 1961 for sitting at the lunch counter of a segregated diner, were exonerated this week in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The group was the first to use a “jail, no bail” tactic which later became a popular tool in the Civil Rights Movement, a Reuters article explains.

The judge presiding over the hearing, John C. Hayes III, is a nephew of the judge that sentenced the group over 50 years ago. “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right it,” Judge John C Hayes III said. Their 30-day sentences at the county prison farm were not the end of their punishment. They were harassed by the police, and some even had to move away to find jobs.

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Ohio Chief Justice, Pushing for Reform, Releases Poll Data

VOTERA poll of Ohio voters shows that 56 percent “believe some unqualified people are elected to the bench due to problems with elections,” the Columbus Dispatch reported, and 44 percent agree or strongly agree that “courts are primarily political institutions where rival groups seek advantage under the law.”

On a more positive note for the courts, 76 percent said they agree or strongly agree when asked if  the “court system is the key protector of individual liberty, safety and property.”

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is pushing for a constitutional amendment that would shift judicial elections to off-years, in order for them to get more attention from voters. She released the polling data on Thursday. Read more

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