Gavel Grab

Justice at Stake Voices Opposition to Arizona ‘Court Packing’ Attempt

Mark Harrison, Justice at Stake Board Chair and an Arizona attorney, voiced opposition on Thursday to a bill advancing in the legislature to expand the Arizona Supreme Court from five to seven justices (see Gavel Grab for background).

“Arizonans have repeatedly stood against partisan political tampering with our courts, so we’re disappointed to see this fresh attempt by legislators bent on politically-motivated court packing in the state,” Harrison said in a statement.

“And the political motive is clear, because our own Chief Justice has stated that neither he nor other current members of the Court believe the Court needs more justices to handle its current caseload. This notion to expand our Supreme Court has been raised and rejected before, and deserves to fall by the wayside again. ”

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Opinion: Lack of Diversity in Alaskan Courts A Problem

An opinion piece appearing in the Alaska Dispatch News criticizes the lack of cultural and gender diversity in the state’s judicial system, following the announcement that Justice Dana Fabe, the only woman on the all-white Alaska Supreme Court, is retiring in June.

The article reports that of the 73 judges serving the district to supreme court levels in Alaska, only 5 are of a minority background and only 18 are women. The author spoke with District Court Judge Pamela Washington, one of only two African-American judges of a district court level or higher, who reportedly stressed the importance of judicial diversity and said that it creates confidence in the justice system. Read more

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AK Judicial Council Hears Public Comment on Court Applicants

As part of the Alaska Judicial Council’s vetting of applicants for a state Supreme Court seat, it heard testimony on Tuesday from members of the public. It was to interview candidates today, first privately and later publicly, and then vote on whom it prefers to recommend to the governor.

According to a article, eight applicants for the post were evaluated in an Alaska Bar Association poll. In Tuesday’s open session, views both supportive of and dismissive of the poll rankings were heard from citizens. One citizen urged that a woman be selected to fill the vacancy created by the upcoming departure of Justice Dana Fabe, while another was critical of the manner of a judge who is an applicant.

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Appointive System Seen as ‘Cleanest Solution’ for Picking AR Judges

It’s well enough to debate bringing disclosure to “dark money” spent to influence Arkansas judicial elections, but the “dimly-lit” and “well lit” rivers of money must not be ignored, John Brummett writes in an Arkansas Online commentary.

Brummett surveys spending of all sorts on the recent Arkansas Supreme Court election, which has ignited new debate about reform, and firmly sides with merit selection: “The cleanest solution would be to stop electing appellate-level judges and allow the governor to make confirmable nominations from a list of prospects certified by a committee consisting, but only in part, of Bar Association members.” Various proposals were to be discussed at a legislative hearing today.

A Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commentary by Brenda Blagg, meanwhile, discussed reforms under discussion and said if Arkansas thinks about switching to merit selection of its judges, voters ought to have time to give it studied consideration.

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Supreme Court Floats a Compromise. Was it to Avert a Deadlock?

An unusual request by the Supreme Court for parties to a controversial case to respond to a compromise it crafted, along with a deadlocked decision (see Gavel Grab), quickly focused attention on the court’s ability to do its job with only eight members since Justice Antonin Scalia died.

By floating its own compromise regarding the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, The Washington Post said, the court indicated “that it is ready to undertake creative moves to avoid a series of 4-to-4 votes.” With its order in this case and its 4-4 ruling in a union case, “The reality of an ideologically divided, evenly split, one-man-down Supreme Court became apparent,” the Post said.

It did not immediately appear that the political landscape — with Senate Republican leaders opposed to considering President Obama’s court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, in an election year — was Read more

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Article: Judicial Elections and a ‘Dysfunctional’ Wisconsin Court

With a contentious race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court nearing its end, a lengthy article examines the way the court’s reputation has declined as its elections have been marked by big spending and political brawling.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court is seen as broken now. It think it’s fair to say its reputation is dysfunctional,” said Matthew Menendez of the Brennan Center for Justice. It is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

The election process for Supreme Court justices now “is almost like electing a representative court,” said former Justice Janine Geske. “I think people lose faith that the court is anything but a political machine and if people don’t respect the judicial process, the whole of the judiciary as checks and balances on the government, and protection of rights [is lost].” Read more

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Editorial: Given PA Court’s ‘Rap Sheet,’ It’s Time for Merit Selection

Various editorial boards’ hammering at the scandal-ridden Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and urging a switch to merit selection of top judges to pick better qualified jurists, is unrelenting. The latest comes from LancasterOnline.

The editorial mocks the “court rap sheet” that includes one ex-justice convicted of corruption and two others disgraced, having resigned in an offensive email scandal. It finds the big money-fueled, partisan system for electing justices wanting and declares, “We believe a merit system is the answer.”

“We are hesitant to take away power from voters. But, given the scandals revolving around the state’s elected judges, and the meager voter turnout — one in five of eligible voters came out during the past election cycle — our current system has left us with little choice,” the editorial says. “The General Assembly should pass this bill. It would represent an important step toward judicial independence. It would Read more

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Debate Continues Over Expanding Arizona High Court

A bill moving forward in the Arizona Senate to expand the state Supreme Court from five to seven justices is clearly about politics, Linda Valdez writes in an Arizona Republic commentary.

One Republican sponsor noted publicly that he would not find the bill so attractive if the governor were not a Republican, but a Democrat, she writes.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales recently stated opposition  by the court’s five justices to the measure. It could not be justified by the court’s caseload or growth of Arizona’s population, he said. Read more

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A 4-4 Deadlock at Supreme Court Hands Unions a Victory

Shorthanded after the February death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court divided 4-4 on Tuesday and handed a significant victory to public unions, although at the time of oral argument it had appeared ready to decide the other way, The New York Times reported.

In the case from California, an appeals court said public school teachers who declined to join unions still must pay fees for union activity, such as negotiating for higher wages and benefits. The Supreme Court said it affirmed the ruling by an equally divided court; the decision thus sets no precedent. The teachers who brought the court case contended their speech rights were violated.

“It was the most important case yet in which the eight-member court was unable to reach a decision,” The Washington Post reported. The ruling came Senate Republican leaders maintained their blockade against considering Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee for the vacancy. Read more

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A nonprofit group called Court Reform LLC issued a report finding that California’s judicial disciplinary agency is too secretive and lenient, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.
  • A New York Times article about retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was headlined, “A Supreme Court Pioneer, Now Making Her Mark on Video Games.” Justice O’Connor is First Honorary Chair of Justice at Stake.
  • has a news report from El Paso, Texas that’s titled, “County researching pulling funding for judge defense in recusals.”
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