Gavel Grab

Case Sparks Debate: How to Eliminate Racial Bias in Jury Selection?

To understand the most recent debate about racial diversity in the justice system, one must first understand a practice that has been considered standard in the court room for over 700 years: the peremptory challenge. First used in England in the 13th century at the dawn of what is now considered the modern justice system, peremptory challenges represent the right of both the prosecution and the defense to remove a juror from a case without explanation.

While the intent of the peremptory challenge is to remove any vestiges of bias from court proceedings, it has come under fire in recent decades for purportedly being used as a tool of racial discrimination.  The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this in the 1986 case Batson v. Kentucky, in which it ruled that the peremptory challenge could not be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race. However, a recent case before Washington’s state Supreme Court has raised concern that perhaps the Batson ruling was insufficient to curb all semblance of racism from juror selection.

The Associated Press reports that the case—State v. Saintcalle—was an appeal from a man who claimed that his trial and subsequent conviction were unfair because the only black juror on his case was removed with a peremptory challenge. Although the conviction was upheld, the case has sparked a debate about whether further measures should be taken to ensure that racism does not infiltrate jury selection and thus the judicial process.  Read more

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2012 Roundup: Judicial Elections

News media reports are providing a fuller picture of the Election Day outcomes for judicial elections. Here is a roundup of more election results:

WASHINGTON: Attorney Sheryl Gordon McCloud won a six-year term on the Washington state Supreme Court, defeating former Justice Richard Sanders, the Seattle Times says. Sanders served on the high court for 15 years, but lost his seat two years ago after he made controversial remarks regarding minority groups.

NEBRASKA: Three Buffalo County judges were retained by a landslide vote, and will serve for another six years, Kearney Hub reports. Judges Gerald Jorgensen, Graten Beavers and John Icenogle all preside over the 9th Judicial District of Nebraska.

TEXAS: According to the Houston Chronicle, Republicans won 8 of 10 races for seats on the First and 14th State Courts of Appeal. Democrats came into the election Tuesday with 19 of the 23 state district benches open for competition, but only came away with 14 judgeships.

WISCONSIN: Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi says she is seriously considering running against Supreme Court Justice Patience Roggensack when she is up for reelection in the spring. In an Isthmus Daily Page article, Sumi says the state Supreme Court is in need of a change.


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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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Academics See Link Between Elections, Sentencing

In an academic study of sentencing by Washington state judges between 1988 and 2004, the judges were found to hand out stiffer sentences for serious crimes as the calendar advanced from installation toward Election Day.

Noam Yuchtman, of the Haas School of Business, at Berkeley, and Carlos Berdejó, of Loyola Law School, tracked an increase of 10 percent in sentencing length in the period between a judge’s taking the bench at the start of a new term to Election Day, or if a judge was unopposed, his filing deadline.

Judges heading toward retirement did not issue harsher sentences as their terms advanced. The authors found that the Washington judges take elections into account, according to a Wall Street Journal blog, whether they do so consciously or unconsciously.

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Washington Court Contest: What’s in an (Ethnic) Name?

In some ways, the primary contest for a Washington Supreme Court seat was a mismatch. The challenger didn’t raise money, didn’t attend candidate events and didn’t meet with editorial boards. His opponent did all of those things, and he was an incumbent.

Yet challenger Bruce Danielson (photo on left of pair) was pulling down 42 percent of the vote, and winning 30 of Washington’s 39 counties, in his unsuccessful race on Tuesday against Justice Steven Gonzalez (photo on right of pair). Afterward, the news media asked why. Here is some of the speculation:

  • Hugh Spitzer of the University of Washington suggested that many voters opposed Justice Gonzalez because of his Latino surname, according to a Seattle Times article. It was headlined, “Justice Gonzalez’s win raises questions about role of ethnicity.”
  • University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto offered a similar view. “When voters find themselves with very limited information, that’s when names and race absolutely factor in,” Barreto told the Associated Press. “They’ll try to infer positions about the candidates by their names, and they’ll misapply stereotypes to the candidates.
  • Justice Gonzalez thought the outcome had a lot to do with the fact that voter guides listing his contest were published only in King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties. He soundly defeated the challenger in each of those counties. ”That’s a dangerous state Read more

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Screening Process for Judicial Candidates Gets Scrutiny

Lawyer Elizabeth Berns of Seattle, Washington, seeking an open seat on the King County Superior Court, has won endorsement from several judges. But the King County Bar Association’s screening panel gave the candidate, who is gay,  a thumbs-down “not qualified” rating.

Because the committee gave another minority candidate a “not qualified” rating earlier this year, the process has come under scrutiny, according to an Associated Press article.

“I am dumbfounded to see how KCBA could have given Elizabeth Berns a ‘not qualified,’” former state Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland told the AP. “I am left with the impression that something is seriously broken in the KCBA judicial evaluation process.”

Berns is campaigning to succeed Judge James Doerty. He is openly gay and has endorsed Berns. ”When you see someone who’s not a crackpot, who is credible, get a not-qualified rating, you have to scratch your head,” he said.

Andrew Prazuch, executive director of the King County Bar Association, said the organization still stands behind the evaluations it has issued. It will weigh whether it should make changes to its screening process, he said.

“We value the input these judges are giving us,” he said. “We hear what they’re saying and we take that very seriously.”

Three minority bar associations gave Berns “well qualified” ratings, a fourth gave her a “qualified” rating, and she garnered an “outstanding” rating form the Metropolitan League of King County.

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Forum Addresses Need for Judicial Diversity in Washington

Judges from across Washington State highlighted the need for a diverse judiciary during a recent panel discussion at Washington State University.

Minority groups don’t always feel like they are part of the judicial system, Judge Cameron Mitchell of the Benton-Franklin Superior Court said, according to a KPLU 88.5 report.

“They don’t see anyone who looks like them that looks like they might have the same type of experiences that they may have had,” Judge Mitchell said. “That is a very intimidating situation. And they feel immediately excluded, rather than included, in the process.”

The League of Women Voters of Pullman sponsored the panel discussion. It is a partner with Justice at Stake in a pilot project to increase judicial diversity across the state. For more about the importance of diversity on the bench, and JAS efforts to increase it, see the JAS Web page on the topic.


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Washington State Judicial Diversity Seminar Sponsored by LWV

Justice Steven Gonzalez of the Washington Supreme Court will speak about the role of judicial diversity in enhancing the legal system at a seminar April 21 sponsored by the League of Women Voters Bellingham/Whatcom County.

A Bellingham Herald announcement of the event described these topics outlined by the League for discussion:

“Is the perception of fairness in judicial matters better when ‘a judge looks like me?’ The League believes that diversity enhances public confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the courts—particularly among minorities. However, in Washington State, judges from the racial and ethnic minorities that are 22% of the state’s population, make up less than 1% of the state judiciary.

“How can we increase diversity on all levels of the judicial system? The judges will discuss from their various backgrounds these and other challenges our courts face especially in a time of declining revenue.”

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Editorial: Will Super PACs Come Shopping for Washington Judgeships?

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, there’s a real risk that “our courts will wind up on the auction block, with justice sometimes going to the highest bidder,” a (Tacoma-Seattle, Wash.) News-Tribune editorial warns.

The editorial cites a recent Washington Post article (see Gavel Grab). The Post documented surging spending by outside special interest groups in judicial elections nationwide, and specifically the role of Super PACs training their sights on judicial elections, all in a new political landscape altered by Citizens United.

That landmark campaign finance ruling lifted key restraints on corporate and labor union political spending. The News-Tribune editorial points to concern about the ruling’s potential impact on fair and impartial courts:

“The decision provided for no firewalls between political and judicial elections. In states that insist on using popularity contests to pick their judges, the threat to an impartial judiciary is obvious.”

While the Washington Supreme Court reinforced its judicial recusal rules in 2010, “We’d prefer a stronger and more specific rule,” the editorial said. It concluded that ultimately, it will be up to citizens to protect the courts:

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Lack in Security Leads to Washington Courthouse Attack

A man stabbed a judge and shot a sheriff’s deputy Friday afternoon in a Washington state county courthouse, reports the Bellingham Herald. Authorities were searching for the man over the weekend, and the article says it was unclear why the suspect had been at the building.

Judge David Edwards, who was stabbed while attempting to stop the assailant, had previously raised the issue of security at the courthouse, writes the King 5 News. In December, Edwards took part in a lawsuit filed over county budget cuts that reduced funding for courthouse security. The court building is not equipped with a metal detector, and there was no on-site security Friday afternoon, according to an article in the Seattle Times. The judges’ chambers are open to the public as well.

According to another Seattle Times article, there have been several past incidents of violence in the courthouse. Over the past two years, “two attorneys were assaulted, a defendant ‘charged’ a judge, and a judge who received a death threat during trial was not provided with adequate security.”

The article cites a significant budget cut for the lax security. State court administrator Jeff Hall argues that despite the budget, “all courts should screen for weapons at every access point.” Courthouses are privy to a variety of incidents, Hall said.

Judge Edwards and Deputy Polly Davin were treated and released from a local hospital hours after the Friday attack. The suspect, identified as Steven Daniel Kravetz, was found and arrested at his mother’s house in Olympia over the weekend according to USA Today News.

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