Gavel Grab

Report by Business-Led Group Criticizes Judicial Elections, Urges Merit

20151118_Choosing_JusticeAn important new report from The Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board delivers stinging criticism of judicial elections and says fundamental reform is urgently needed. “[A]ppointment  should be the basic principle applied to the selection of all judges,” the report says in favoring merit-based judicial selection.

“State judges make decisions in over 100 million cases annually, but their ability to handle these matters impartially is put at risk when floods of election money pour into the judiciary,” said Bob Kueppers, former Deputy CEO of Deloitte and Co-Chair of CED’s Money in Politics Subcommittee, which led the study, in a statement. “Appointing them based on merit will insulate them from the political pressures caused by campaigns and, ultimately, help to ensure that justice is fairly applied.”

The CED report says, “Elections encourage candidates to raise campaign contributions and appeal to voters, which exposes judges to partisan political pressures and interest group politicking aimed at influencing their behavior.” It zeroes in on concerns of the business community: Read more

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Texas Commission to Address ‘Justice Gap’

A recent article bytexas court the Texas Tribune reports that a large number of mostly middle class Texans fall into a “justice gap” where they aren’t poor enough to receive free legal aid provided to indigents but can’t afford basic legal services on their own.

The article reports that the state’s highest civil court launched a new commission to identify and assist Texans who have fallen into the “justice gap.” “The 18-member Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services, led by former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, will spend the next year gathering data and coming up with recommendations to be presented in November 2016.”

In interview with the Tribune, Jefferson said, “one of the most famous phrases in American law is liberty and justice for all — it is part of our culture, it is part of our custom, it is part of the fabric of our democracy…one of the biggest challenges today is to make that phrase a promise and to make that promise a reality.”

“Today, even most lawyers cannot afford to retain another lawyer to represent them in civil legal disputes,” Jefferson said. “This is a crisis for the legal profession and for our state.”

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Courthouse News reported from California, “Old Notion of Stripping Trial Court Hiring Power Raises Its Head Anew.”
  • Reporting on news from Anne Arundel County, Md., the Capital Gazette had an article that was headlined, “Former applicant for Circuit Court bench files lawsuit.”
  • Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board said it will soon decide whether misconduct charges will be brought against state Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin amid allegations of offensive email traffic, according to The Associated Press. 
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Courts Can’t Work Efficiently With Too Few Judges: Commentary

The Senate has left Washington for its Thanksgiving break, and its Republican-steered delay in acting to confirm judicial and executive branch nominees “makes it hard for the courts and the federal government to work efficiently,” Jonathan Bernstein says in a Bloomberg View essay.

With only 10 judges confirmed this year and with 66 judicial vacancies, the foot-dragging of Senate on these nominations has not been equaled since the Eisenhower administration, he writes. It’s not just a variation of partisan maneuvering. “It’s new, it’s a big deal, and it’s terrible,” he contends.

U.S. News & World Report, meanwhile, had an article headlined, “Public Service Nominees Become Pawns in Political Squabbles.”

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JAS: States That Elect Judges Are Approaching ‘Code Red’

corrupt justiceThe record-breaking, $16.5 million Pennsylvania Supreme Court election this month is no aberration, Scott Greytak of Justice at Stake writes for the blog of The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. 

“Its sky-high spending, ad war among special interests, and dominance by candidates who spent the most all fit into a pattern. This grim picture threatens the evenhanded justice that our Constitution promises, and raises troubling questions about whether justice is indeed for sale,” writes Greytak.

He then compares what happened in Pennsylvania with themes of the previous election cycle as documented in Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14. Greytak, JAS policy counsel and research analyst, was lead author of the report, coauthored with The Brennan Center for Justice and National Institute on Money in State Politics. Read more

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Pulling Back the Veil on Funding of Judicial Crisis Network

A secretive nonprofit group called the Wellspring Committee gave more than $6.6 million last year to the Judicial Crisis Network, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, while citing Justice at Stake about JCN’s efforts to influence state judicial elections.

“The Judicial Crisis Network gave $528,000 to organizations that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on judicial elections in Wisconsin and Tennessee,” according to Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14, coauthored by JAS and two partner organizations.

The Center for Responsive Politics has previously written about the Wellspring Committee and funds from it that were channeled into judicial election spending, and you can learn more from Gavel Grab. Under federal tax law, the Wellspring Committee is not required to disclose its own donors.

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Commentary: ‘Pay-to-Play’ Court Race Perception in N.C.?

pay-to-play cashA recent report documenting surging special interest spending on judicial elections, coauthored by Justice at Stake, continues to get news media coverage in high-spending states — including in less populated areas.

In North Carolina, a commentary by Patrick Gannon of the Capitol Press Association, about what Gannon called the corrupting influence of money on judicial races, was published in The Greenville Daily Reflector and The Salisbury Post.

Gannon sums up what Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14 identifies as trends in the big-spending 2014 North Carolina Supreme Court election, and he comes away worried. Also coauthoring the report were The Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Read more

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Editorial Casts its Vote for Merit Selection in Pennsylvania

An Erie Times-News editorial, discussing a proposal to raise the mandatory retirement ages of Pennsylvania judges (see Gavel Grab), casts its vote for another switch: for the merit-based selection of top state jurists.

“The truly wise step to take,” the editorial says, “would be for lawmakers to approve legislation supported by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts to create a merit system for appointing judges to the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme courts.” The editorial also notes the support of PMC, a Justice at Stake partner organization, for the proposed constitutional amendment to raise judges’ retirement age.

“Those who want to raise the retirement age in Pennsylvania should step up for merit selection as well to enlist support from voters on the referendum,” the editorial concludes. Read more

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A three-judge panel of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional a Wisconsin law saying that abortion providers must obtain admitting privileges from nearby hospitals, the Associated Press reported. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving a challenge to a similar law from Texas.
  • Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, was named one of the ABA Journal’s top 100 law blogs for the four year in a row. The center is a Justice at Stake partner group.
  • A Washington Post article about the U.S. Chief Justice was headlined, “Roberts recalls another chief justice and reveals a little about himself.”
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Editorial: PA Court System ‘Has Become its own Punchline’

Even as three new justices prepare to take seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the fact that court is tarnished by scandal and viewed dimly in some circles remains a theme of news media attention.

“Pennsylvania’s judicial system has become its own punchline,” said a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial as it called for an outside, independent investigation of possible misconduct by sitting Justice Michael Eakin, the target of allegations about porn emails. “Eakin’s Arrogance,” a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial scolded about the justice’s urging a new agent for the investigation (see Gavel Grab).

Other coverage included, The Associated Press, “Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 3 justices-elect appraise its battered image, need for changes”;, “Pa. Supreme Court’s tarnished rep tough on sole female justice”; The Times-Tribune, “Stevens wrapping up term on Supreme Court”; and a Times-Tribune commentary about a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges, “You’ll be judge … of age.” Read more

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