Gavel Grab

ABA Warns: Budget Cuts Could Have a “Ripple Effect” on the Judiciary

In a letter sent this week to the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the American Bar Association warned that excessive budget cuts to just any one piece of the judiciary, “will have a negative ripple effect on the rest of the judicial system.” 

The letter was issued in response to the committee’s July 23 hearing concerning the impact of automatic sequestration budget cuts on the judicial branch. The ABA Journal reports that one of the more notable problems of sequestration that was noted in the hearing and again in the ABA’s letter is that budget cuts have not been evenly dispersed throughout the judiciary but instead have fallen almost entirely upon public defenders’ offices. According to the ABA’s letter, this imbalance could have far-reaching and devastating effects: “Continued funding cuts to defender services likely will exacerbate this [imbalance], increase government costs in the long run, imperil defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights to effective assistance of counsel and statutory guarantees of a speedy trial, and challenge our commitment to equal justice under the law.”  Read more

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LA Times Editorial Endorses ABA Plan

An editorial in the LA times yesterday displayed strong support for the recent ABA proposal that endorses judicial nominating commissions, which would give senators and the president community-based recommendations for filling federal court vacancies.

The editorial asserted that adopting such a proposal would lead to a drastic improvement in the overall quality of the courts in the United States. It could also mean a departure from the political manipulations and grandstanding typically seen in the Senate confirmation process.

Neither presidential candidate has taken a position on the proposal, but an Obama spokesman indicated that the senator would, if elected, look at several options aimed at eschewing political influence in judicial selections.

To see an earlier Gavel Grab discussion of the American Bar Association proposal, which is voluntary and does not limit the president’s power to nominate federal judges of his or her choosing, click here

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Wall Street Journal (Round 2)

Give the Wall Street Journal points for persistence, if not consistency.

After firing away last week at the ABA’s call for advisory federal court nominees (blurring it with merit selection, a very different entity), the Journal continued its assault Saturday with a new editorial criticizing merit selection systems.

The editorial dwelled on the shortcomings of a slate of three nominees sent to Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt by a judicial nominating panel, to fill a vacancy in the state Supreme Court. It especially singled out Appellate Judge Lisa White Hardwick, naming two other candidates who were clearly superior.

The editorial had a strange sense of de ja vu. Barely a year ago, when Blunt was sent a list of nominees for the last Supreme Court opening, an August 2007 Journal editorial also railed against the three chosen candidates, and also identified more qualified candidates who should have been considered. One of those spurned candidates was … Lisa White Hardwick.

As the Journal’s own mixed reviews of Hardwick show, choosing a judge is a subjective business. If we disagree with ourselves, we surely can disagree with others.  

As a nonpartisan campaign with 50 national partners, Justice at Stake takes no Read more

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Letters Respond to WSJ's 'Judicial Coup' Editorial

Today’s Wall Street Journal published five letters responding to last week’s editorial, “The ABA Plots a Judicial Coup.” The authors include American Bar Association President H. Thomas Wells Jr., Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg, and Greg Musil, chair of Johnson Countians for Justice, which is fighting a ballot measure to end merit selection for judges in Johnson County, Kansas. Here is a link to today’s letters.

The Journal editorial is flawed by serious factual errors, wrongly stating that the commissions would have binding power,  and would intrude on presidential authority to nominate federal court judges. As noted in two Justice at Stake commentaries, the ABA plan is entirely voluntary. Its primary goal is to defuse partisan bickering by promoting bipartisan community input at the front end.

Because the Justice at Stake letter was edited somewhat for space, as were several other letters, we’re reprinting the original version that we e-mailed to the Journal.

Dear Editor:

The Aug. 14 editorial on judicial selection includes several errors. It asserts that selection commissions would pick nominees, even though the bipartisan commissions proposed by the American Bar Association would Read more

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The Wall Street Journal Transforms Advice into a 'Coup'

The lead editorial of the Aug. 14 Wall Street Journal fired away at a wide range of topics involving judicial selection, taking particular aim at the American Bar Association and Justice at Stake. When you stack the half page column against the concerns it raised, it’s striking to see a big-league paper like the Journal blasting away at an advisory tool that’s been used by President Bush for years.   Somewhere along the line, nonbinding advice has become a “coup.”

The editorial, “The ABA Plots a Judicial Coup,” was provoked by the ABA’s endorsement this week of bipartisan citizen commissions that would evaluate, review and suggest slates of possible federal judges. The ABA further urged the president to “consider” any names forwarded by senators using these commissions.

The goal, as explained by ABA president H. Thomas Wells Jr.,  is to cool the partisan rancor that defines too many judicial nominations  and to create community buy-in for eventual nominees. As Wells noted in a press conference Monday, the process is entirely voluntary.

Here is the link to the editorial. For a link to the ABA resolution, click here.

Leaving aside the editorial’s many factual errors (for instance, its attempt to paint this as a mandatory system that would steal the president’s power to nominate judges is flatly wrong), the real question is this: what is so wrong with getting community input before nominating new judges?

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Federalist Society Weighs In on ABA Judicial Plan

In its newest ABA Watch publication, the Federalist Society lists a lengthy set of criticisms of a new proposal by the American Bar Association, which urges that senators  form bipartisan commissions to evaluate and suggest federal court nominees.

I’ve printed the entire passage at the end of this posting, but it raises four criticisms of these bipartisan commissions:

  • That the Constitution, specifically Article II, Section 2,  ”does not call for consultation with the Senate in the nominations process.”
  • The President is under no constitutional obligation to cede nominating power to these lawyers [and] this could create another bureaucratic barrier to what should be a smooth-running process.
  • Greater discretion to Senators could lead to more nominees being recommended based on patronage.
  • It’s unlikely to improve the situation, since presidents would remain free to nominate whom they please, and senators would still be free to oppose those nominations.

In an Aug. 12 press release, Justice at Stake praised the ABA recommendation, saying it is a well-reasoned effort to cool down the partisan bickering that surrounds too many federal court nominations.

The criticisms cited by the Federalist Society, while thoughtful in tone, seem burdened by some internal contradictions.

The ABA proposal is purely voluntary. As new President H. Thomas Wells Jr. noted Monday, the president will retain sole Read more

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Role of Courts Takes Center Stage at ABA Meeting

The role of courts and judges was a recurring theme at the  American Bar Association’s annual meeting, which concluded  today in New York.

At his press conference, incoming ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. proposed a plan to reduce partisan sniping in the nomination of federal judges. But the theme also was at the center of three major panel discussions, two professional education programs and a luncheon honoring the lawyers and judges of Pakistan who defied President Musharraf when he arrested many of that nation’s top judges last November.

A summary of ABA activity in the last week:

  • On Monday, Wells discussed an ABA resolution that urges senators in each state to form bipartisan commissions that would evaluate and recommend judicial nominees, and further urges the president to consult with state senators before submitting a court nominee. In a videotape of his press conference, Wells notes says the plan, currently used Read more

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Justice at Stake Backs ABA Plan for Judicial Nominations

 Justice at Stake issued a press release today, endorsing a new American Bar Association plan to reduce politics in the selection of federal judges.

 The proposal calls on senators in each state to form bipartisan commissions that would evaluate and recommend federal court nominees who enjoy widespread backing.

 As JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg noted:

“Decades of Beltway politics have brought us gridlock and guerrilla warfare instead of principled confirmations—and deterred good candidates from across the political spectrum. The ABA has crafted a responsible plan to make it harder for partisan agendas to elbow aside the rule of law.”

 To see the release, which includes a video of a press conference by new ABA president H. Thomas Wells Jr., as well as a link to the ABA resolution, click here.

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Give Me the Money or Else…

Campaign donations are meant to be just that…a donation. However, for friends of Reginald K Davis, a judicial candidate in Wyandotte County, Kansas, a donation may be seen as a way of protecting their livelihood.

After complaints had been filed with the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications, Davis admitted to having sent this text message to lawyers in the area, “If you are truly my friend then you would cut a check to the campaign! I you do not then its time I checked you. Either you are with me or against me!”

The message, as discussed in the Kansas City Star’s “PrimeBuzz” blog, is the subject of a recent report issued by the American Judicature Society‘s Center for Judicial Ethics.

Davis also admits to having solicited contributions during a public event, but he said his earlier text-mail words were not meant to be intimidating. He also said that his opponent,  Daniel Cahill, is the person responsible for the negative connotation to his words.

Even during an era when special interests are spending more on court elections, judicial Canons continue to prohibit judges from personally soliciting campaign funds. 

The American Bar Association has also been instrumental in creating a Model Code of Judicial Conduct that sets guidelines for judges and candidates to follow in the hopes of avoiding these dilemmas in future judicial elections.

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Newseum to Host ABA-Sponsored "Rule of Law" Town Hall Meeting

Washington, DC’s newest and glossiest museum – the Newseum – will play host to an April 30 town hall meeting on the rule of law. Pete Williams of NBC News will moderate a distinguished panel that includes Dianna Huffman, a distinguished lecturer at the Philip Merrill School of Journalism and a member of Justice at Stake’s board of directors. All the details, including registration information, are on the ABA’s website.

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