Gavel Grab

Shutdown of Courthouses Ahead in Kansas?

bnr-SP-01A court ruling in Kansas this week (see Gavel Grab) put state courts “on a collision course with the state legislature and raised the specter of a shutdown of courthouses statewide,” a Wall Street Journal blog reported.

There likely will be plenty more media attention before the case, about the legislature’s stripping the Kansas Supreme Court of its authority to appoint chief district judges, is through. That’s in part because a separate law passed by the legislature called for defunding of the entire Kansas court system if the chief judge-appointment provision was struck down by a court. (The Shawnee County judge who issued the initial order put it on hold on Thursday so an appeal can be considered.)

Mother Jones magazine reported, “Kansas Republicans May Have Just Shut Down the State’s Court System.” In Kansas, meanwhile, a Wichita Eagle editorial cheered a “Big win for judicial independence.” It scolded legislators who “went wrong” in wresting the appointment power away away from the Supreme Court and then “brazenly tried to ensure the reforms would withstand any legal challenge” by passing the budget proviso. Read more

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Changes in Court Practices After Judge Was Recorded on Video

Has a video recorded in a smalltown Georgia court helped lead to changes in court practices involving defendants who could not immediately make payments on fines? A New York Times article says that is the case.

A video recorded surreptitiously showed Judge Richard A. Diment of the Bowdon Municipal Court telling traffic violators who were unable to make an immediate payment on their fines that they would be jailed, the article said. In two specific cases cited by the newspaper, the defendant was not represented by an attorney. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a person who is not able to pay may not be locked up for failure to make a payment.

The Southern Center for Human Rights was informed about the video, which was posted on YouTube, and it sent observers to the judge’s courtroom. The observers made a complaint to the city, and it agreed, in an order signed by the judge, to a series of changes. A lawyer for the city said the changes also were made in response to a new state law. Read more

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Possible U.S. Budget Cuts Fuel Court Funding Concerns

The potential impact on the courts of possible automatic, across-the-board federal spending cuts called sequestration is drawing concern from attorneys and judges.

The presidents of 17 bar associations in New York state warned in a letter to members of Congress that if the cuts are applied to the fiscal 2016 federal budget,  federal courts again face the prospect of “devastating” budget cuts affecting both individual and business litigants, according to a New York State Bar Association press release.

“The functioning of our courts was seriously undermined by the sequester in 2013 and they have still not fully recovered,” the letter said. “We cannot afford a repetition of the 2013 underfunding which resulted in extensive case delays, reduced security and inadequate personnel to carry out necessary day-to-day operations.” Read more

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Tennessee Judge Lambastes ‘Judi-idiocracy’ From Supreme Court

Chancellor Atherton

Chancellor Atherton

Public officials, including an elected Tennessee judge, are in the news over their decisions about applying (or not) the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that found a right to marriage for same-sex couples.

Hamilton County, Tennessee Chancellor Jeffrey M. Atherton has denied a heterosexual couple’s divorce petition with an unusual legal analysis “that has made waves around the world,” according to The Washington Post. He wrote that the effect of the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling “is to preempt state courts from addressing marriage/divorce litigation altogether.” He laced sarcasm and criticism together in one spicy sentence:

“Although this Court has some vague familiarity with the governmental theories of democracy, republicanism, socialism, communism, fascism, theocracy, and even despotism, implementation of this apparently new ‘super-federal-judicial’ form of benign and benevolent government, termed ‘krytocracy’ by some and ‘judi-idiocracy’ by others, with its iron fist and limp wrist, represents quite a challenge for a state level trial court.”

Read more

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Thursday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

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Justice at Stake: Ax Now Hangs Over Funding of Kansas Courts

welcome-to-kansas“An ax is hanging” over funding of the entire Kansas state court system because “elected officials … chose to make political pawns of state courts,” Justice at Stake said on Thursday after a ruling by a Shawnee Court judge a day earlier (see Gavel Grab).

Judge Larry Hendricks struck down as unconstitutional a 2014 statute taking away from the state Supreme Court the authority to pick chief district judges. “This ruling is a victory, but more needs to be done,” said Liz Seaton, Interim Executive Director of Justice at Stake, in a statement. Because another law said Kansas courts would be defunded if the provision were struck down, questions immediately were raised about possible defunding of the state judiciary.

“We know that lawyers in the case have asked for a stay of this week’s ruling to prevent that from happening,” Seaton said. “Meanwhile, the health, safety and welfare of all Kansans hang in the balance.” (Later on Thursday, an emergency stay of the order was granted, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.) Read more

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Judicial Recusal Debate Still Alive in Wisconsin

Wisconsin_flag_mapA controversy over a decision by two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, who chose not to recuse themselves from participating in a ruling that ended a campaign finance investigation, has not gone away.

Regular Gavel Grab readers will be familiar with the controversy. Now Wisconsin Law Journal has published side-by-side, opposing opinions distributed by Dolan Media Newswires.

Brendan Fischer, general counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy, wrote an opinion headlined, “PRO: Recusal was only way to go in John Doe.” He based his views on the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Caperton v. Massey and on his view that the John Doe case went further because “the [Wisconsin] justices rewrote the rules to greenlight campaign coordination – not only for gubernatorial candidates like Scott Walker, but also for their own campaigns.” Read more

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Defiant Kentucky Clerk Ordered to Jail

BULLETIN: “Clerk Who Blocked Gay Weddings Is Ordered to Jail,” the New York Times reported on Thursday afternoon. 

A clerk of courts in Rowan County, Ky. who refused, based on her religious beliefs, to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples was to appear before a federal judge on Thursday. Kim Davis, the clerk, has support from some conservative groups.

That support includes The Foundation for Moral Law, founded by Roy Moore, who is now Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice. A press release by the group praised Davis, according to news reports by On Top Magazine and WSFA.

A New York Times article detailed legal support for Davis and several other public officials by Liberty Counsel, a legal nonprofit group, and it mentioned praise for Liberty Counsel from a conservative leader who was sharply critical of the courts. Read more

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Administrative Revamp for Kansas Courts is Struck Down

A Kansas judge struck down as unconstitutional a 2014 statute taking away from the state Supreme Court the authority to pick chief district judges. Because another law said Kansas courts would be defunded if the provision were struck down, questions immediately were raised about funding of the state judiciary.

Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks did not address in his ruling Wednesday the statute about court funding, enacted by the Republican-led legislature. Attorney General Derek Schmidt said Hendricks’ decision “could effectively and immediately shut off all funding for the judicial branch,” and that he would ask the judge to put the decision on hold, according to the Associated Press.

It is not likely the courts’ funding actually is in jeopardy, state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King said, because opportunities for appealing the Wednesday ruling are numerous. Read more

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Opinion: Fair State Courts Would Benefit Voting Rights Advocates

In a commentary discussing litigation in North Carolina courts to defend voting rights, Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress says advocates wanting a fair hearing in state courts ought to push for judicial selection reform.

“The same partisan interests with a stake in voter suppression are funding the campaigns of the judges who will approve their agendas,” Corriher warns. “Americans in states with elected judges must demand that state supreme court justices implement ethics rules that would keep them from hearing cases involving their campaign contributors.”

By adopting an appointment system for choosing judges, states “would certainly keep partisan cash from dominating the judiciary,” he adds. Read more

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