Gavel Grab

Former Iowa Justices Speak on ‘Political Battlegrounds’ in Courts

On Wednesday, former Iowa Supreme Court Justices Marsha Ternus, Michael Streit and David Baker spoke at the Colorado Judicial Institute’s 10th Annual Judicial Excellence for Colorado dinner. The three spoke on the importance of an independent judiciary and expounded upon being ousted from the bench for political reasons, according to the Denver Business Journal.

All three of the justices were removed from the bench in 2010 in a retention election after they ruled same-sex marriage constitutional in Varnum v. Brien (see Gavel Grab). Streit said groups outside Iowa spent almost $2 million in a campaign against them.

Ternus, Streit and Baker all agreed that they were caught “flat-footed,” and didn’t know how to defend themselves against the negative campaign. “The business community’s response to the [ouster] campaign was almost non-existent,” Baker said.

Ternus argued that the legal community as well as the business community stand to gain from having an independent judiciary. Companies want to know the judges will follow the rule of law, she said. Read more

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Former Judge Calls Merit System in Colorado the “Gold Standard”

A former Colorado Supreme Court justice has lauded the success of the state’s merit-based appointment and retention (up-or-down) election system for picking judges, calling it the “Gold Standard” of judicial selection systems.

Former Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, gave that appraisal in addressing a Law Week audience at the Colorado Bar Association, according to a Colorado Statesman column. 

Voters adopted the merit selection and retention election plan in 1966, after Colorado had elected judges in partisan elections for 90 years. The influence of mining and other business interests in the courtroom was so great that historian Page Smith, including the judiciary as well as the executive and legislative branches, described Colorado’s government as  “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Rockefellers and Guggenheims.”

According to the column by Bob Ewegen, the pre-screening of nominees that occurs under the merit system “assures that potential judges are chosen for merit, not loyalty to political bosses or campaign contributors.” At the same time Kourlis also highlighted equally important efforts to assure accountability and excellence, adopted by the legislature in 1988, that help account for the system’s success.

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Colorado Judicial Ouster Group ‘Political,’ Court Says

Clear the Bench Colorado, a group that unsuccessfully sought to oust three state Supreme Court justices in 2010,  is a political committee subject to contribution caps under state campaign finance law, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled.

The ruling represented “a victory keeping big money out of judicial elections in Colorado, said Luis Toro, director of Colorado Ethics Watch, according to a Denver Post article. His group had lodged a complaint against Clear the Bench. Matt Arnold, director of Clear the Bench, said the decision “flies in the face of the law.”

As a political committee, Clear the Bench would restricting to accepting no contributions greater than $525 per donor in an election cycle. As a different kind of committee, called an issue committee, it was able to accept unlimited contributions.

The appeals court upheld a decision by an administrative judge (see Gavel Grab).

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'Our Courts' to Offer Programs in Spanish

Our Courts, a speakers bureau about the state and federal court systems in Colorado, will begin today offering programs in Spanish.

Our Courts is coordinated by the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Judicial Institute, according to a Law Week Colorado article. The Spanish-language education programs about the courts will be coordinated with Bienestar Servicios Familiares of Centro San Juan Diego.

“After great success with its English-language presentations, Our Courts has embarked on a major effort to reach Spanish-speaking audiences,” said Our Courts executive committee chair and U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger. “Our initial Spanish-language presentations have been very well received, and we are grateful to Centro San Juan Diego for providing this opportunity to reach leaders of numerous Hispanic organizations.”

The Colorado Judicial Institute is a Justice at Stake partner.

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No Repeat for Colorado Term Limits

We have good news from Colorado on the term limits front. John Andrews- the architect of the term limits initiative that was defeated by a margin of 57% to 43% in 2006- announced on Friday that he will not proceed with plans to reconstitute the proposal in 2008. According to the Associated Press, the former state Senate President cited “a lack of political energy behind the issue.” Links to news coverage follow:’srNewsTitleLink’%20href=’http:/ and also

Andrews’ lack of success in obtaining sufficient signatures to mount another campaign on this issue is clear evidence to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) that voters believe that our judicial system is fundamentally sound. Our thanks go out to the greater coalition of organizations and individuals who helped to make this victory possible through their media and public education efforts.

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3/10/08: The Welcome Back News Monitoring Edition

Justices decry outside campaign ads– Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Campaign ads are causing a furor in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

Minnesotans should elect judges, county GOP says– Bemidji Pioneer
A Minnesota GOP official would like to see judicial elections and that their must be a change in the laws

Chief federal judge investigated for alleged involvement with prostitutes– Channel 9 News – Colorado
A Colorado Federal Judge and NY Governor Elliot Spitzer may have the same problems today.

Judgment: Not fair– The News & Observer
Editorial on discussing the ruling in North Carolina.

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While every state judicial system has rules and canons with respect to judicial recusal, legislatures in the last several sessions also examined whether to impose by statute recusal requirements. In this legislative session:Colorado’s SB 1193 would prohibit District and County Court judges from presiding over a case in which a judge or former judge of the same court is a party.Massachusetts’ SB 870 and the almost identical SB 871 would require a judge to “evaluate his own conscience as to his impartiality” upon written motion for recusal. A judge denying the motion would be required to sign the motion and forward a copy to the court’s Chief Justice and all parties.West Virginia’s HJR 104 would create a Judicial Recusal Commission to rule on judicial recusal matters. The Commission, on application by a party in a case, would be required to issue a binding decision on whether a judge should be recused.Wisconsin’s SB 170 would require every party in a civil suit to receive a summary of the Supreme Court rules regarding recusal and impartiality and detailing the procedure to follow to review and copy a statement of the judge’s economic interests. The Director of State Courts would be required to prepare the summary and procedure and provide the copies without cost.From the 2-8-08 issue of Gavel to Gavel, a review of state legislation affecting the courts. Read the entire issue and subscribe here.

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2/12/08 – Louisiana SC Wants to Self-Govern, Griffen's Case May Finally Be at an End, CO Couple Wants Marriage Rights, First 9/11 Charges Made, WV Candidates Debate

Supreme Court: ‘Let us govern ourselves’ – The Times-Picayune
Louisiana Supreme Court Associate Justice Kitty Kimball speaks out about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ethics proposal and requests that the courts be given a chance to govern themselves.

Judge refuses to reconsider judge’s lawsuit – The Associated Press
A federal judge Monday refused to reconsider Arkansas Appeals Court Judge Wendell Griffen’s lawsuit challenging the state judicial disciplinary panel’s rules.

Couple asks court to overturn gay marriage ban – The Denver Post
A lesbian couple is challenging the constitutionality of Colorado’s same-sex marriage ban. The couple will be in court tomorrow facing charges from their sit-in protest last year after they were denied a marriage license.

US seeks the death penalty as six detained in Guantánamo are charged over 9/11 – The Guardian
U.S. Military prosecutors issued the first charges relating to the September 11 attacks and announced they would seek the death penalty against six detainees held at Guantánamo Bay.

Court candidates speak at forum – The Journal
The four Democratic candidates in the West Virginia State Supreme Court race faced off in a question/answer session in Charles Town.

Click here for more news on fair and impartial courts issues from the Brennan Center for Justice E-lerts.

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Court Security

While most legislatures are just barely into session, this year is already proving to be one of the most active when it comes to securing the nation’s state courts. While the specifics vary widely, they are all focused on ensuring the protection of the personnel and people within the courthouse and beyond.

At the administrative level, Nebraska’s LB 722 would have the state absorb all costs associated with security of the trial court courtrooms throughout the state with funds appropriated to and through the Supreme Court. Kentucky’s HB 380 would mandate the Administrative Office of the Courts install security systems in the homes of trial court judges who have been threatened or had their family threatened. The systems would be capped at $5,000 with any additional costs to be paid for by the judge. Idaho’s HB 370 would place security of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and its corresponding justices/judges in the hands of the State Police. Wyoming’s SB 42 would create a new commission under the authority of the Supreme Court to establish court security standards and inspect facilities throughout the state. Finally, Missouri’s HB 1623 would expand the number of trial courts able to make use of a special civil suit surcharge fee for court security purposes.
Read more…

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Ballot Measures to Watch in 2008

It’s going to be a blockbuster year in the world of judicial elections, with more than 40 seats on state high courts potentially on the ballot by the time the November general election rolls around. It’s also shaping up to be an active year for ballot measures that seek to play politics with the courts. None of the proposals so far rival the outrageous 2006 “JAIL 4 Judges” measure that lost in a landslide in South Dakota – but the year is early yet. Here is what we do know about, thus far. Reports out of Colorado indicate that another effort will be made to impose term limits on every judge in the state (a modified version of the 2006 proposal that Colorado voters defeated by 14 points). Voters in Johnson County, Kansas, will be deciding whether to keep a merit selection system for their local judges. In Oregon, a proposal had been floated to strip incumbents of their designation as such on the ballot – but that measure was withdrawn recently (hat tip to DOL for pointing out to me that this one was rescinded). The great unknown in 2008 is Missouri, where critics of the state’s merit selection system have promised to take their gripes to the people via ballot measure (the Missourians might want to read our poll before setting out to gather signatures).

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