Gavel Grab

OR, CA, IL Courts Hurting from Scarcity of Funding

While defenders of federal courts have spoken frequently in the past few weeks about a need for greater funding, court systems at the state level are also experiencing dire consequences from smaller budgets.

In Oregon, layoffs have led to overflowing caseloads and shuttered courthouses, an Oregonian editorial says. According to the state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Balmer, the courts need $410 million from 2013-2015 in order to run efficiently everyday at full capacity.

While the state courts deserve to be funded equally as a third branch of government, the editorial argues, legislators have yet to find an adequate source of money. The courts are having to spend increasingly more on its pension system, making it difficult to find a long term solution to the system’s search for funds, it says. Read more

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OR Chief Justice: Courts Need Funding for ‘Equal Justice for All’

When Chief Justice Thomas Balmer of the Oregon Supreme Court (photo) appealed for reversal of some court spending and staffing cuts, he focused on serving the people who use the court and on helping judges work more efficiently.

“Delivering justice is a noble goal,” Balmer said in his first state of the courts address, according to a Statesman Journal article. “As a state, we need to give our institutions the tools they need to work toward equal justice for all.”

“We can improve our productivity if we can add back some of the staff we have cut,” Chief Justice Balmer added. “We can help judges work more efficiently.”

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Judicial Races, Reform Talk Grab Attention in States

With judicial elections only three weeks away in some states, races for state supreme courts are getting stepped-up news media attention. In a few states, reform of judicial elections or judicial recusal also is in the spotlight.

In West Virginia, where four candidates are running for two seats on the state’s highest court, Republican Circuit Judge John Yoder supports nonpartisan judicial elections, and Democrat Tish Chafin has proposed changing the process for disqualifying a judge in event of a potential conflict of interest. An Associated Press article was headlined, “W. Va. high court hopefuls mindful of critics.”

In Ohio, a Toledo Blade article reported on incumbent Justice Robert Cupp’s re-election bid and challenger William O’Neill’s stated concerns about the way judicial elections are funded.  There were these reports from other judicial election states:

MINNESOTA: A Pioneer Press editorial about three contested races was headlined, “Minnesota Supreme Court candidates deserve voters’ attention.”

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Editorial: ‘Skimping on Justice’ Can’t Work Forever

“Access to justice” is a rather amorphous phrase, but an editorial in The (Portland) Oregonian gives one of the best explanations Gavel Grab has seen recently:

“You’re in a child-custody dispute with your ex. 

“You need a restraining order. 

“You discover an employee may have stolen from you. 

“Your property gets trashed by a renter.

“If the courts can’t help you in a timely manner, the consequences to individuals and businesses can be severe.”

The editorial cites these examples in urging legislators to make court funding a high priority at an emergency board’s meeting next week, especially given court funding cuts that are “jeopardizing citizens’ right to justice without undue delay.”

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Group to Study Possible Judicial Selection Reform in Oregon

A study group led by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who is retiring, will begin examining this month possible reforms in the way judges are chosen for the state’s two highest courts.

In a proposal for the work group in 2011, Chief Justice De Muniz wrote, “Nationally, the increasing politicization of state judicial elections puts at risk judicial independence and erodes public confidence in the impartiality of judicial decisions. More recent judicial election campaigns in Oregon have exemplified the growing trend for judicial elections to become more and more affected by partisan politics.”

According to a column in The Oregonian by Susan Nielsen, reform efforts in Oregon have not gotten traction in the past decades, but “[u]gly battles in Iowa and other states, combined with an explosion in campaign spending, have changed the game.” Voters removed three state Supreme Court justices in Iowa in 2010, in retaliation for a court ruling that permitted same-sex marriages.

One reform suggestion that has been floated is for Oregon to move to what is known as The Missouri Plan, for a proven appointment-and-retention system of judicial elections there.

On a web site for the study group, reading materials for the first meeting included a report co-authored by Justice at Stake and partner groups entitled “The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2009-10.” The report found that independent expenditures by special interest groups accounted for nearly 30 percent of the money spent on state judicial elections during the two-year period, far higher than four years earlier (see Gavel Grab).

In North Carolina, meanwhile, a WFAE radio report explained how judicial elections work in the Tarheel State and questions raised about the process.

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Oregon Justice Worries About ‘Nuclear Judicial Arms Race’

Oregon Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who is retiring, has voiced concern about the prospect of a “nuclear judicial arms race” striking court elections in the future.

Justice De Muniz spoke to a joint luncheon of the Salem City Club and Marion County Bar Association, according to a Statesman Journal column.  He said he was concerned that Oregon could head in the same direction as Illinois, Ohio, and West Virginia, which have had big-spending campaigns for high court seats.

Justice De Muniz has asked the Oregon Law Commission to study alternatives to Oregon’s existing system of judicial elections.

“It is no wonder special-interest groups now see opportunities to influence who serves on a state’s highest court,” he said. “So far, Oregon has been spared the financial arms race that typifies the funding of judicial election campaigns in many other states… But we should not wait for the nuclear judicial arms race to strike here.”

In addition, Justice De Muniz said he was concerned that ”[c]ontinuous budget reductions, session after legislative session, have now brought Oregon’s courts to the constitutional brink.” He added, “We must talk with the Legislature about whether it will fund a full-time court system in Oregon and what that should look like.”


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Legislator Urges Study of Merit Selection for Oregon High Court

As Oregon readies for the rare direct election of two state Supreme Court justices next year, there is scrutiny of the state’s judicial selection process and a call for looking at a merit-based appointment system.

According to a (Salem) Statesman-Journal column by Peter Wong, two retirements will result in direct election for two seats next year. After that, for the first time in nearly a century, a majority of the court will be made up of justices directly elected by voters.

Democratic state Rep. Chris Garrett recently wrote, “It is time to ask whether our system of electing judges is really a healthy one,” Wong notes, and he concurs: “Garrett has a point.”

Wong cites a $1.4 million election contest for an opening in 2006, and soaring election costs nationwide during the past decade as reported by Justice at Stake and partner groups.

Garrett detailed his ideas in a recent column entitled, “Campaign money and influence: It’s time for Oregon to reform judicial selections.”

“Oregon has no rules limiting the dollar amounts that can be contributed in state elections,” Garrett explained. “Thus, unless we make changes to our system of selecting judges, we are at risk of joining other states that are seeing a flood of special interest money into judicial elections.” Read more

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Merit Backer in Pennsylvania: Choosing Qualified Judges Counts

State Rep. Bryan Cutler, a Republican, says a major reason he favors legislation to switch to merit selection of judges in Pennsylvania is the importance of choosing qualified jurists.

“I want a process that depends on credentials and qualifications, not who can get out the most voters,” Cutler told the Pocono Record for an article that highlighted debate over merit selection proposals as seen through the lens of a state legislator who’s co-sponsoring them.

Pennsylvania ranks in the forefront of states where legislators are seeking a switch from partisan election to a merit-based selection system (see Gavel Grab).

Shira Goodman of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts agrees about reasoning for switching to merit selection. “We have been in favor of qualified candidates, those who have a reputation for fairness and honesty and those who have a professional background that brings diversity to the benches, which reflect what Pennsylvania looks like,” Goodman said. “That’s what a merit selection system does.” PMC is a JAS partner group. Read more

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1/29/08 – No Easy Release for Convicts on Mukasey's Watch, MN Voters Concerned w/ Judicial Elections, Backlog in TX, Racial Issues in IL, Bush Threatens Veto, Again

Mukasey may try to derail early releases – The LA Times
Attorney General Michael Mukasey may try to slow or stop early releases for convicted drug offenders, but a federal judge in Oregon may be working faster on early releases than Mukasey expected.

Minnesota voters want say over judges – The Pioneer Press – MN
A Minnesota poll released yesterday shows that voters in the state are concerned about special-interest money, TV ads and political party affiliation in judicial campaigns. Minnesotans also favor periodic votes on whether or not to retain a judge rather than requiring a contested race.

Texas Supreme Court backlog reaches record level – The Associated Press
The Texas Supreme Court left a record 111 cases pending at the end of the 2007 fiscal year, even as it agreed to hear more cases.

Judge candidates question factor of race in bar polls – The Beacon News – Chicagoland, IL
The Kane County Bar Association’s recent release of recommendations is drawing criticism because all four recommended candidates are white and the two candidates designated as “not presently recommended” are African-American.

Veto of Wiretap Measure Is Threatened – The Washington Post
Bush warns the Democratic Congress of a veto, a move aimed at forcing the Administration’s much desired renewal and expansion of the Protect America Act, which is due to expire on Thursday.

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

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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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