Gavel Grab

Kansans for Fair Courts Launches New Website

Kansans for Fair Courts has launched a new website to promote transparency in Kansas’s judicial system and to educate the public about the changes  made to the selection system by Gov. Sam Brownback and allies in the state legislature.

The new website includes educational materials and diagrams about Kansas’s courts and about the changes that have been made. The legislature voted this year to scrap merit selection of Court of Appeals judges and adopt a Washington-style process that gives the governor more power. The site also encourages visitors to sign a petition that urges Brownback to return transparency to the judicial selection process.

Brownback has drawn criticism from groups defending fair and impartial courts over changes to the way that Kansas’s appellate judges are chosen. More recently, Brownback refused to reveal the names of applicants to serve on the court. Read more about the changes to Kansas’s courts on Gavel Grab.

Kansans for Fair courts is a non-partisan coalition working to keep politics out of the courtroom. It is an initiative of the Kansas Values Institute—a grassroots organization that advocates for a number of policy issues. Check out the new website at:

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches on fair and impartial courts:

  • The U.S. Senate reached a deal last week that avoided changing filibuster rules in exchange for the confirmations of three executive nominees. However, ABA Journal reports that this new found amity is not expected to extend to Obama’s nominees to the federal appeals court.
  • Luis J. Rodriguez became the first Latino president of the California Bar Association after the organization elected him to a one-year term on Friday. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Rodriguez will also be the first public defender to have held the position.
  • Former Tennessee Governor Winfield Dunn came out in support of attorney John Jay Hooker’s effort to eliminate the state’s judicial merit selection system for appellate judges—known as the Tennessee plan. According to The Tennessean, however, the state’s attorneys have called for an end to Hooker’s lawsuits, pointing that the system has been upheld twice in an appeals court.

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Editorial Opposes Change To Missouri Merit Selection

When Missouri voters go to the polls in November, they should oppose changing the state’s nationally recognized merit selection plan for choosing judges, an editorial in the (Springfield, Mo.) News-Leader urges.

Defenders of the merit selection plan contend that the changes contained in a proposed constitutional amendment would destroy the system, while supporters of the proposed revisions portray them as a modest tweaking of the system (see Gavel Grab).

Under the proposal, the governor would get more influence over choosing members of a judicial nominating commission that screens candidates for the state Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals.  In addition, a state Supreme Court judge would be removed from a voting position on the commission. Read more

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Pa. Supreme Court Candidate Backs Merit Selection

Jack Panella (left), a Pennsylvania high court candidate, promoted the merit selection system of electing judges this week at a press club meeting in Harrisburg.

When explaining his desire to move away from the current system of electing judges, he pointed out the need to eliminate fund raising and political bosses in the selection process. He also specifically praised Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake Partner that advocates for the implementation of  merit selection.

The merit selection system involves a nominating commission comprised of citizens that submits candidates to the governor for appointment. The concept also includes nonpartisan retention elections for judges following an initial term to give the public a voice on whether officials deserve to remain in office.

For more information on Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, you can check out PMConline. You also can read more about Panella’s support for merit selection reading this commentary at “Choose Judges on Merit,” the PMC blog.

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Corporate Attorney Replies to Wall Street Journal on Merit Selection

A business attorney from Minnesota published a letter in the Wall Street Journal today, replyng to the Journal’s most recent attack on merit selection of judges:

I write in response to your recent editorial “State Courts in the Balance” (Oct. 30) dealing with state judicial elections and the noxious influence the trial lawyers have had in getting left-leaning and plaintiff-oriented judges elected or appointed to high judicial positions. I’ve been a trial lawyer for 35 years with 90% of my career given over to the defense of corporations and insurance companies in civil litigation.

Your longstanding habit of tarring all “trial lawyers” with the same brush is unfair and misleading. Read more

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Growing Support for Merit Selection in PA


Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a non-profit dedicated to “ensur[ing] that Pennsylvania has fair and impartial courts that serve all Pennsylvanians,” and ardent supporters of merit selection, added another group to their list of support for merit selection in Pennsylvania.

PMC announced, via their blog, Choose Judges on Merit, that the Pennsylvania Council of Churches has decided to publicly announce their support for the proposal to select Pennsylvania appellate judges by merit selection.  

This statement of support can be added to the testimony of numerous other groups and organizations like The Pennsylvania Bar Association, Common Cause Pennsylvania, and the American Judicature Society.

The Urban League of Philadelphia also has issued written testiony to the state Senate Judiciary Committee supporting merit  selection of Pennsylvania Appellate court judges.  The Urban League said a merit system would foster  greater  diversity on the bench.    

There are bills pending in the Pennsylvania legislature that would “replace the current process of electing appellate court judges with a new process that combines elements of elective and appointive systems: using a nomination process with a retention election component, and adding the unique element of an independent nominating commission to evaluate candidates and recommend the most qualified for possible nomination.”  

Check out the bills here, and the PMC blog entry here. 

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Missouri Candidate Wants to Change Judicial Selection Method

Missouri Republican gubernatorial candidate, Congressman Kenny Hulshof, has announced that while he continues to favor merit selection for state judges (as Gavel Grab previously noted), he’d like to see some changes in the process.

Currently, a panel made up of three lawyers elected by the Missouri State Bar, three citizens appointed by the governor, and the local presiding appellate judge submits a slate of three names to the governor for selection.  

According to an Associated Press article, Congressman Hulshof called for numerous changes, including: 

  • Replacing the lawyers with randomly selected state judges.
  • Replacing the current presiding judge with a randomly selected former state Supreme Court Justice.
  • Sending the governor five nominees for the bench instead of three, and allowing the governor to choose his or her own nominee after rejecting two slates submitted by a review commission.

Hulshof’s comments also are discussed in the Kansas City Star’s Prime Buzz column.

In his remarks, Congressman Hulshof complained that “the nonpartisan plan has become partisan,” tilting toward Democratic jurists favored by plaintiff’s lawyers, but in the Kansas City Star’s Prime Buzz column,  former Republican governor John Ashcroft’s chief of staff flatly disagreed.

Congressman Hulshof’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Jay Nixon, wants to retain the current selection procedure. Any change would require a constitutional amendment, and an attempt by Republican lawmakers to scrap the system failed in the last legislative session.  

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Philadelphia Inquirer Supports Merit Selection

The Philadelphia Inquirer has joined in the call to choose Pennsylvania’s appellate judges through a merit selection and retention elections. Saturday’s editorial is the latest follow-up to a hearing last week before the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee, proposing the switch from competitive elections. It concludes by saying:

“What citizens already have decided about judicial elections is that they’re confusing at best, with legal qualifications playing a minimal role in who wins. At their worst, judicial elections are tainted by what Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille calls the ‘corrosive effect of money.’ An appointed judiciary with voter oversight is the remedy.”

On Friday, Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, filed the following written testimony to the Senate committee.

You can read the Inquirer editorial,  and also learn more by visiting Choose Judges on Merit, the blog of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

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Indiana County Weighs Judicial Evaluations

In St. Joseph County, Indiana, Superior Court judges may have to face performance evaluations done by the St. Joseph County Bar Association, according to the South Bend Tribune. Currently the Indiana county uses a merit selection process followed by a retention election six years later.

The article points out what the judicial evaluation plan may cover:

After years of reluctance to judge the judges, the St. Joseph County Bar Association has found a way to evaluate performance that will utilize the combined experience of its 500 member attorneys and assure confidentiality. The lawyers are being asked to score the Superior judges on a wide range of job performance topics — such matters as efficiency, knowledge of the law and courtroom demeanor.

To learn more about Judicial Performance Evaluations systems, visit this page at the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.

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Pa. Hearing Considers Merit Selection

Leaders of Pennsylvanians for Moderns Courts testified Tuesday before the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in Harrisburg, urging legislation to choose Pennsylvania’s appellate judges through a process of merit selection and retention elections.

For a full account of yesterday’s testimony, see PMC’s posting on its Judges on Merit blog. PMC’s Web site also offers specifics about the proposed legislation. One especially interesting feature is the makeup of the nominating commissions, which would assure that a broad cross-section of the public takes part. As is generally the case with merit selection systems, all judges would periodically face voters, to decide whether they would remain on the bench.

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