Gavel Grab

Utah Judiciary Gains Diversity, Va.’s First Black Judge to Step Down

Utah attorney Renee Jimenez has been appointed to the state’s 3rd District Juvenile Court, becoming the second minority judicial candidate nominated by Gov. Gary Herbert, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

“Gov. Herbert recognizes that diversity on the bench is important, said Minority Bar President Jesse Nix in a statement. “Minority kids, regardless of their race or ethnicity or economic background, will believe that a judge that looks like them will listen and be interested in helping them become law-abiding and productive citizens.”

Only 9 percent of all Utah judges are minorities, the article says, and just 24 percent are women. Jimenez will fill the vacancy of retiring Judge Frederic Oddone, who served on the court for almost two decades.

In Virginia, the first African American appointed to serve as a federal judge will step down next year to become a senior judge.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch says that U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer is set to semi-retire on March 25, 2014. He will take on a smaller caseload as a senior judge.

Spencer was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 at the age of 37. In an interview at that time, he said that being the first African American federal judge in Virginia did not mean much to him.

“I’ve always… been the first black or the only black. That’s not a victory. I think it is too bad. I long for the day when it will be so insignificant that it will become irrelevant,” he said during the interview.

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Utahns Give Courts a Good Review

A new survey shows that a large portion of the public maintains a high opinion of the Utah judicial system, reports a Deseret News article.

Commissioned by the Utah Judicial Council, the survey looked at public confidence in the Utah court system. Of those surveyed, 81 percent rated the state’s courts as “good to excellent.” The results showed a slight raise from the last poll of this nature; in 2006, only 78 percent of the public gave the courts the same rating.

The 800 household polled were asked questions regarding their “knowledge, expectations, familiarity, perception, experiences and confidence” with the courts, reports the article.

The most notable shift from 2006 was in regard to how the public learned about the courts, say court officials. In the most recent survey, 51 percent of respondents said they used the Internet as their most frequent source of information on the courts, compared to 22 percent in 2006.  Read more

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Minority Judge Confirmed After Unusual Battle in Utah

Utah’s Senate recently voted 17-10 to confirm Su Chon, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Korea, to be a district judge. But confirmation didn’t come without an intra-GOP political fight over the first minority nominee picked by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert in his 25 judicial nominations.

The confirmation vote came shortly after the state Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee voted 4-2 against the nomination, according to a Deseret News article, as a number of key Senate GOP leaders contended she lacked adequate trial experience.

“The committee has never rejected a nomination before. Some people suspected prejudice,” reported An analysis by Paul Rolly in a Salt Lake Tribune commentary blasted the committee as dysfunctional and stacked with “minions” of Senate President Michael Waddoups, a Republican who personally questioned Chon’s trial experience.

Rolly denounced the “humiliation Chon had to undergo at the hands of a few senators [which] will send a chilling message not only to minority lawyers who would like to be judges, but to women as well.” Rolly added that Chon “has a stellar reputation as a mediator and legal analyzer, and other judges who have proven their worth had little more experience in litigation. The nature of the questions, in my opinion, proved the trial experience issue was a smoke screen.”

In a separate Salt Lake Tribune commentary, Rolly applauded several acts “of heroism” that ultimately helped seal Chon’s confirmation: Gov. Herbert’s refusal to accept Chon’s initial withdrawal of her nomination when the going was rough; Republican freshman Sen. Todd Read more

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) urged Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Justice Alex Kozinski to cancel the court’s planned Maui conference, The Associated Press reported.
  • A lawsuit against Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan asserts that she “inaccurately and unfairly summarized a ballot measure dealing with judicial appointments,” according to an Associated Press article.
  • California became the latest state to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, Yes! Magazine reported.
  • Utah District Juvenile Court Judge Scott Johansen is accused of poor courtroom behavior and decision-making in this Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece.

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Pioneering Utah Judge: Diversity on Bench Still a Challenge

Almost 30 years after he became Utah’s first black jurist, Judge Tyrone Medley says a lack of diversity on the Utah bench poses a significant challenge.

Only five of Utah’s 71 district judges are racial or ethnic minorities, according to a Salt Lake Tribune article. Gov. Gary Herbert has made 24 judicial appointments, none of them minority jurists.

“I would have hoped that the judiciary over the time that I’ve been a judge would be more diverse than it is now,” Judge Medley tells the newspaper. “But that’s the way it is.”

Judge Medley praises the Utah Minority Bar Association for its work to expand diversity on the bench, as Utah’s minority populations increase.  ”It’s just not something that’s going to happen overnight,” he says. “The community is going to have to hold those in power who make these appointments accountable for a more representative judiciary.”

Judge Medley is preparing to retire. The profile is entitled, “Tyrone Medley: From basketball court to Utah’s first black judge: Utah’s first black judge found success in second efforts.”

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Utah Minority Bar Association Wants More Diverse Judicial Branch

The Utah Minority Bar Association is seeking a more diverse justice system. UMBA members appeared before the 3rd District Judicial Nominating Committee on Tuesday and said the “state’s judiciary does not reflect the people it serves.” They asked for serious consideration to be given to minority applicants, especially for benches that haven’t had a minority appointment in five years, says the Salt Lake Tribune.

Attorney Michael Martinez said that only three of 72 district judges statewide are “racial or ethnic minorities.”  Two judgeships are currently open in Utah’s largest judicial district with the impending retirement of two judges. After one retires, Judge Tyrone Medley, Utah will have just two minority judges.

“Our job is to make sure the judicial branch is representative of our community,” said Jesse Nix, the Minority Bar Association’s president-elect. “Right now, it’s not.”

According to the article, the state’s Hispanic and Latino population has more than quadrupled over the past 2o years. “There are many minority community members who feel ostracized or improperly treated by our court system,” Nix said.

Governor Gary Herbert has appointed 24 judges to the bench while in office, none of whom have been “an ethnic or racial minority.” Martinez asked the Nominating Commission to send Governor Herbert a panel of only minority applicants, “forcing his hand.”

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Fears Rise Over Impact of Judicial Nominations Skirmishing

In two states as disparate as Utah and Maine, there is concern about filling vacant judicial seats given partisan battling in the U.S. Senate.

President Obama has nominated two candidates for federal district court judgeships in Utah, one of them in June, the other last week. Confirmations “don’t come quickly,” a KSL TV report noted, and the clerk of the U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City said, “It must just be the political environment we’re in.”

“I think it puts a lot of stress on the system when you don’t have your full complement of judges,” said former federal Judge Paul Cassell, who teaches law at the University of Utah.

In Maine, the Kennebec Journal reported that Obama’s failure to nominate someone for the seat of Judge Kermit Lopez on the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has two potential consequences: “a blow to Maine’s legal prestige and delayed justice in a key federal court.”

Even if a nomination is announced in January or February, it “could be snared by election-year politics” with confirmation not coming until 2013, the article said.

Read more

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2/27/08 – More from Wisconsin; More from Michigan;Reprimand in Utah?; Efficient Courts in Massachusetts

Minimize the politics in selecting justices – Detroit Free Press
Cate McLure of the Detroit Free Press wants to see politics out of Supreme Court elections this fall in Michigan, and that includes the money that is raised and spent.

Top court race needs fairness – The Badger Herald
More Wisconsin coverage, this time discussing the need for fairness in Wisconsin’s high court.

Judges praise court reforms – The Boston Globe
Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of Massachusetts praises the reform the Massachusetts Judicial system which now make the courts run a lot more efficient.

Did Valentine approve Buttars’ letter? – Deseret Morning News
Utah state legislature is hot water over a letter he sent to a judge 2 years ago about a decision that did not go in his favor.

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12/20/07 – PA Commission to Replace Mott; WH Lawyers Met w/ CIA About Tape Destruction; Las Vegas Called "Judicial Hellhole"

Democratic committee chair Gustin seeks judicial commission in Mott’s replacement – The Daily Review
Joan Gustin pushes for a “gubernatorial judicial commission” to select nominees for the vacancy created by Bradford County Judge John C. Mott’s retention loss in the fall election.

Clark County Debuts as a ‘Judicial Hellhole’ – KLAS News – Las Vegas
The American Tort Reform Association ranks the Clark County court system fifth worst in the nation, based attorney-judge relationships, judicial elections, low levels of recusals, and judicial misconduct.

Bush Lawyers Discussed Fate of C.I.A.Tapes – The New York Times
At least four top White House lawyers took part in discussions with the Central Intelligence Agency between 2003 and 2005 about whether to destroy videotapes. The tapes were destroyed despite a court order directing them to preserve all evidence.

Who should run justice courts? – The Salt Lake Tribune
The state’s Judicial Council, headed by Utah Supreme Court Justice Ronald Nehring, has proposed legislation to sever the perceived ties between judges and attorneys.

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

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