Gavel Grab

Opinion: How to Fix Dark Money in Judicial Races? With Disclosure

gavel-and-cash.125192919_stdIn an era of big-spending judicial elections, “dark money” election spending poses a real threat to fair and impartial courts and must be remedied with rigorous disclosure by litigants and lawyers whose spending has supported a judge, a Chicago Tribune op-ed says.

The op-ed was written by Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Litigants (and their lawyers) should be required to disclose their contributions to influence any judicial election. This is a straightforward rule that would apply to trial lawyers and corporate defendants, and everyone else before the bar,” Weissman contends. Once disclosure occurs, then a litigant will know when to ask a judge to recuse, he suggests. Read more

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Elected Judge’s Role in Death Penalty Case to Get Scrutiny on Appeal

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in WashingtonThe U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of a Pennsylvania death row inmate whose legal arguments take aim at a state judge over tough-on-crime themes during his election campaign for the high bench.

Convicted murderer Terrance Williams contends that former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille should have recused himself from participating in a unanimous court decision that upheld Williams’ punishment. 

Recusal was warranted because Castille had been working as the local prosecutor when Williams was convicted, Williams’s lawyers said. They also pointed to a tough-on-crime election campaign by Castille emphasizing his “pursuit of capital punishment” and putting convicted killers on death row, according to Reuters and Philadelphia Inquirer articles. Read more

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Leahy Fears ‘Judicial Vacancy Crisis’ In the Offing

CapitolflagWith the Senate having confirmed only a handful of judicial nominees so far this year at the hands of Republicans who “have virtually shut down the confirmation process, we are headed to a judicial vacancy crisis,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Leahy is senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s Republican chairman, has countered that the committee has been doing its job holding nomination hearings and that foes have distorted the actual track record of the Senate, in Republican hands since January. Read more

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N.C. Legislature Wants Judicial Candidates to List Parties

The North Carolina legislature has passed and sent to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature a bill to require candidates for the North Carolina Court of Appeals to list their party affiliation on the ballot.

Nonetheless the Court of Appeals elections would not be technically partisan, according to a report, as a primary would not be a partisan affair. It would winnow a field of candidates for a judgeship down to two, but they could both be affiliated with the same party.

Gavel to Gavel, meanwhile, reported that other states are considering similar moves, and it listed them. Gavel to Gavel is a publication of the National Center for State Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

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Friday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Associated Press reported, “Oklahoma court stops 3 pending executions after drug glitch.”
  • Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, appearing at Ohio State University, said, ““I really feel that I stand on the shoulders of people like Justice O’Connor and Justice Ginsburg, and my life was so much easier because of what they did,” according to the Associated Press. She is the fourth woman to serve on the high court.
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Will Another Porn Email Scandal Affect Pennsylvania High Court?

Will the Pennsylvania Supreme Court be affected by another email porn scandal? The latest headlines suggest that, less than a year after then-Justice Seamus McCaffery resigned following  his apology for sending sexually explicit emails, which he had described as private and personal (see Gavel Grab).

The latest headlines are based on statements by Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who is facing criminal charges that she leaked confidential grand jury information to damage a critic. Here are some of the headlines, involving Justice J. Michael Eakin: Philadelphia Inquirer, “Kane says Justice Eakin exchanged porn emails on state servers”; Philadelphia Daily News, “New emails surface in Kathleen Kane saga”; and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Attorney General Kane: Sitting state justice sent, received ‘racial, misogynistic pornography’ on state computers.” Read more

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Editorial to Walker: Don’t Give a High Court Candidate a Boost

Wisconsin_flag_mapFor Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to fill a state Supreme Court vacancy with an already declared candidate would give that person an advantage in next year’s election, and he should leave the seat open for now, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial says.

Alternatively, if the governor feels he must make an appointment, he ought to name a justice who would not be a candidate next year, the editorial adds. It concludes:

“Maybe the state should change the way it selects justices; we’ve argued that. But right now, Wisconsin voters still make that choice — and Walker should allow them to make that choice without giving an advantage to one candidate.”

At, Chris Rickert has a political analysis of the latest developments, titled “Hope for Scott Walker’s opponents, if not for Supreme Court elections.”

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Amid Wave of Vacancies, U.S. Judges ‘Burned Out, Overworked’

empty-bench1Across the country, numerous federal court judges are spread thin, facing a backlog of cases, calling on semiretired judges for help and wondering if they will ever get reinforcements, a lengthy Huffington Post article says.

Jennifer Bendery’s article is chock full of data about vacant judgeships, high caseloads, deemed “judicial emergencies” and partisan politics in Washington over filling the vacancies. It also gives a glimpse of the impact of vacancies on people who use the courts: “The problem is, when court seats go unfilled, cases get seriously delayed and regular people suffer. In a civil case, that means someone suing an employer for discrimination will wait years to go before a judge. In a criminal case, that means defendants can finish their jail terms before their case is even resolved.” Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The Appellate Judicial Nominating Commission has recommended seven candidates for a vacancy on the Utah Supreme Court, according to the Associated Press. Gov. Gary Herbert will name an appointee subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
  • A federal judge in Wyoming issued a preliminary injunction to block new Obama administration rules on hydraulic fracturing,  The New York Times reported.
  • “Parties rubber-stamp judicial nominees,” a Buffalo News headline said. For background about New York State Supreme Court elections, see Gavel Grab.
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Judicial Recusal Proposal Floated in Wisconsin

Democratic legislators in Wisconsin have called for stricter judicial recusal standards in the wake of controversy over a decision by two state Supreme Court justices who chose not to recuse themselves from participating in a ruling that ended a campaign finance investigation.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, the proposal would require “judges to recuse themselves from cases involving donors to their campaigns.” The article did not provide any details of the proposal, which was part of a package called for by Democratic legislators.  

You can learn about the controversy, and the background leading up to it, from Gavel Grab.

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