Gavel Grab

Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz is to be the focus of an upcoming book as well as a feature film by the producer of the award-winning “Hot Coffee”– a 2011 film that featured a segment on Diaz. The Sun Herald reports that the movie will chronicle the challenges mounted against Diaz by political and business interests whose priority was out-spending and unseating the justice.
  • The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously confirmed three nominees for federal judgeships in Illinois on Wednesday. The Associated Press reports that the nominees will face a confirmation hearing before the full Senate later this year.

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John Grisham, Koch Industries Donate in Mississippi Court Race

With donations coming in from novelist John Grisham and the Koch brothers and television ads getting nasty, the “gloves are off” in the race for a seat on the Mississippi state Supreme Court, reports Patsy Brumfield at the NEMS Daily Journal.

The candidates, Flip Phillips and Josiah Coleman, have questioned each other’s experience, qualifications, and honesty through the course of the campaign, reports a NEMS Daily Journal article published Thursday.

Coleman has framed the campaign as a choice between a fair judge who will respect the law or a justice “who has a record of wanting the legal system to change society and viewing the days of jackpot justice as progressive.” Phillips, on the other hand, claims that “out-of-state special interest groups are trying to buy our Mississippi Supreme Court” through their support of Coleman. Read more

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Editorial: Campaign Fundraising Problematic for Selecting Judges

Requiring Mississippi judicial candidates to raise money from donors in order to maintain a seat on the bench is “unseemly,” a Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal editorial says.

The editorial argues that appointive systems for picking state Supreme Court justices are preferable to elections.

Filing reports indicate that all candidates except one in Mississippi’s current Supreme Court race have raised well over $100,000 for their campaigns.

“Money drives all levels of politics these days,” the editorial says, but judicial candidates should be independent from influence by special interest groups. The candidates don’t run as Democrats or Republicans, but that doesn’t prevent special interests from becoming involved, it notes.

Campaign fundraising is not in the best interest of the judicial branch, and judges should not have to seek financial support in order to win a seat on the court, the editorial argues.

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Commentary: Money, Politics Create ‘Farce’ out of Judicial Elections

Money and politics will always influence the selection of judges, whether they are elected or appointed, a Mississippi Clarion-Ledger column argues. Accordingly, the “question becomes how we make the selection process more honest,” Sam R. Hall writes.

Hall says state Rep. Earle Banks hit the nail on the head when he called judicial election rules “farcical.” Banks, who is running in the state Supreme Court election, was answering a question about endorsements that political parties can make in a non-partisan race.

Banks’s opponent, incumbent Chief Justice William Waller Jr., said during a debate that he was unaware whether PACs are contributing to his campaign, because he does not look at his contributions and instructed his staff to not tell him the identity of donors (see Gavel Grab).

Hall calls Waller’s claim farcical, but says that the fault lies with the “rules governing judicial elections,” not with Waller’s attempt to seem independent.

Hall argues that even in an appointment system of judges, “money will still flow to influence the political appointment.” It would also be harder to trace once mixed in with all other contributions, he says.

Candidates in other judicial races have knowingly accepted PAC money, and there’s nothing illegal about it, Hall says. Currently, special interest groups have a palpable influence over the state’s judiciary, he argues, and possible solutions are proving elusive.

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Mississippi Judicial Candidates Split Over PAC Money

Mississippi State Rep. Earle Banks (far left in photo) and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. (second from the left) differ widely in their campaign methods. Banks is running against Waller in the Nov. 6 election, and says his campaign will not accept money from political action committees even if Waller does, an Associated Press article reports.

“Now, I can’t get any money from PACs, ’cause I think he’s got it all,” Banks said during a debate in Jackson. “With no disrespect, there’s a lot of PAC money been going around, and it’s not for Earle Banks. And that’s fine.”

Waller has been on the bench since 1996, and he did not instruct his campaign to turn away PAC money, the article says.

“The truth of the matter is as long as we have elections, you’ve got to pay for the elections and contributions is how you do it,” Waller said. “So, I don’t know how you go about it without making it available to everyone. I’m sure they’re following the rules, wherever the limits are that are applicable to it.”

Banks admitted to accepting PAC campaign contributions during legislative elections. Recent campaign filing reports show that Banks currently has $13,840 for his campaign while Waller has $71,304 on hand.

Mississippi judicial candidates run without party labels, but both have been endorsed by a major political party, the article reports. Banks called the state’s nonpartisan judicial elections “a farce.”

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • In a letter to the editor of the New York Times, legal scholar Carl Tobias responds to a recent Times article that argued President Obama has made less of a mark on the federal bench than expected. Tobias claims the article exaggerated the role played by Democrats in what he calls a “glacial” confirmation pace.
  • Chief Justice William Waller, Jr. of the Mississippi supreme court recently visited the Exchange Club of Cleveland, the Bolivar Commercial reported. Waller spoke about the history of the court and explained how the justices decide which cases to hear.
  • According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister, former state senator Janine Orie, are to be tried together. The two face charges of public corruption.
  • In response to recent remarks made by Lubbock County, Texas Judge Tom Head, the state Democratic Party chief has called for his resignation, CNN reported.
  • Writing for the Concord Monitor, Chairman of the New Hampshire Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) Robert Wilson explains the inner workings of the state’s JCC.

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Partisan Atmosphere in Mississippi’s ‘Nonpartisan’ Judicial Elections

Mississippi’s nonpartisan judicial elections in practice are not as free of politics as they may appear, says the Associated Press.

Judicial candidates in Mississippi run without a party label, yet interest groups and political parties remain involved in the campaign process, the article said. It added that trial lawyers hold fundraisers for their preferred candidates, political parties can endorse judicial contenders, and interest groups are involved in campaign activities.

In 2007, Mississippi ranked seventh nationally in total Supreme Court campaign spending. $3.8 million was raised on candidate fundraising and independent TV ads according to JAS’s ‘New Politics of Judicial Elections 2000-2009′ report.

“When they took the political parties out of the process of electing judges, it created a vacuum and into the vacuum came the special interest groups and the single-issue organizations, like the trial lawyers and the Chamber of Commerce,” former Judge Jim Herring said. “They’re the ones that are now funding and supporting judicial candidates, and that’s not a good thing.”

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Some State and Federal Courts Struggle to Stay Open

Kansas’ state courts will close for five Fridays and 1,500 court employees will be furloughed one week without pay. A Topeka Capital-Journal article says this is due to the Legislature’s inability to pass a bill that would fix a budget shortfall for the courts.

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss said he would sign an order setting five Fridays as furlough and closure days. The Legislature had prepared to adopt a supplemental budget bill last week that would’ve covered shortages in court funding, but  a dispute in the House and Senate concerning an unrelated issue derailed the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat,  said Nuss’ actions were warranted given the move by House Republicans to torpedo a budget agreement heading toward floor votes. Nuss presides over administration of the state’s judiciary, and said he only had “lousy” options.

House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Republican, said the decision by Nuss to furlough was “unnecessary.” Nuss in response said that prompt approval of a funding bill by the House and Senate would allow rescinding of  closure and furlough orders that were remaining.

Meanwhile in Washington, the U.S. Judicial Conference was reviewing whether or not to close the federal court in Wichita Falls, Texas. According to the (Wichita Falls) Times Record News, North Texas congressmen have said they didn’t plan to intervene in the decision. ”The bottom line on the courthouses is the Judicial Conference makes those decisions,” Wichita Falls Rep. Mac Thornberry, said. “Congress doesn’t really have any input.”

Federal Magistrate District Judge Robert K. Roach doesn’t believe the court will be closed, but he is concerned about the impact if it did. ”I despair that if they were to close the courthouse here, there would be a loss of the federal law-enforcement effort here,” Roach said. A final decision on the proposed closure is expected to be released by the Judicial Conference in September. To learn more about the possible closing of dozens of federal courtrooms, see Gavel Grab.

Meanwhile, Mississippi senators approved legislation on Wednesday that would raise the pay of Mississippi judges and prosecutors. The state’s judges have ranked as the lowest-paid in the nation for years, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. has said the higher salaries are needed to “attract the best possible candidates for the judiciary.”


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MS Ex-Judge Featured in HBO Documentary

Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. will be featured in a documentary called “Hot Coffee” on HBO. The documentary will highlight how corporate money can skew the balance of justice to benefit big business, according to a Sun Herald article.

The documentary will show a range of individual stories that underscore the detrimental effects that can result from corporate interests contaminating the courtroom. The article notes that Diaz’s story about corporate interests actively seeking his defeat in Supreme Court races will be told alongside the infamous “hot coffee” suit against McDonald’s in which a woman was awarded $2.9 million in damages for being burnt by McDonald’s coffee.

The documentary will show how Diaz dealt first-hand with corporate money flooding into judicial races in attempts to unseat him. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent about $1 million to defeat Diaz in 2000, according to Diaz’s estimate. The move was unsuccessful.

Diaz also suspects that politics were behind indictments on tax evasion and campaign loans in 2003. Diaz was acquitted. In 2008 Diaz was unseated by a candidate with corporate backing in a campaign with misleading third-party ads. He says about his experience:

“If you let the anger consume you, it would sort of take over your life… It’s something that happened to me. I learned a lot. I learned who my friends are. I learned a lot about character and how to deal with adversity. I think I’ve come out of it a better person.”

View the official “Hot Coffee” Trailer

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Tort Wars to be Renewed in Mississippi Elections?

From time to time a court case comes along that could have a massive political impact in shaping a state’s elected judiciary, and it is recognized in advance. Such a scenario is unfolding in Mississippi, a major judicial election battleground.

A Jackson Clarion Ledger commentary chronicles the case and the potential impact in an article entitled, “Court decision on tort reform will impact elections.” This week, the state Supreme Court — at the prompting of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — heard arguments over the constitutionality of the state’s $1 million cap on non-economic damages.

Tort reform has been a white-hot issue before the courts,  not only in Mississippi but across America. Here’s how Justice at Stake and co-authors put it in a 2010 report on soaring judicial election spending in the past decade:

“In America’s tort wars, both sides feel perpetually aggrieved, pointing to rulings they believe to be abusive and courts they are convinced are biased, and vowing to out-organize and outspend the other side.” Read more

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