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Air War Coming Over Chief Justice Ballot Measure in Wisconsin

Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Wisconsin.svgA proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the Wisconsin Chief Justice is selected will be the subject of advertising for and against it, sponsored by rival groups, in the run-up to the April 7 referendum.

If passed, the Republican-drafted amendment likely would result in demotion of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a member of the court’s liberal minority. It would allow the court’s members to choose the Chief Justice instead of conferring that job on the justice of greatest seniority. Critics say the measure is a partisan power grab, while supporters say it enables democracy.

Vote Yes for Democracy, a pro-amendment group, reported it has raised $600,000 from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, according to a article. Vote Yes for Democracy reported spending $189,100 on radio advertising, and its spokesman said TV advertising is coming.

The Greater Wisconsin Committee, meanwhile, released a radio ad against the proposed amendment. In it, former state Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske urged a “No” vote. Make Your Vote Count, an anti-amendment group, said it raised $80,000 for the effort, reported. Read more

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Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals of the Kansas Supreme Court’s voiding death penalties for two brothers in a notorious quadruple killing, the Topeka Capital-Journal said; there was criticism of the Kansas court from some politicians and citizens over the cases, and an unsuccessful effort to remove two state justices in retention elections last year (see Gavel Grab).
  • The Wisconsin Supreme Court said it will hear no arguments at all — neither public nor closed — as it weighs challenges to a political campaign-finance investigation, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. 
  • The Missoulian reported, “Montana House backs bill to require ‘dark money’ groups disclose donors.”
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Inherent Risks of Electing Judges are Part of PA Political Landscape

vote signAs hundreds of candidates prepare to run for various levels of judgeships in Pennsylvania, a (Pittsburgh) Tribune-Review article includes questions about the harmful influence of elections upon fair and impartial courts.

“If you’re going to run an effective political campaign, you have to do things that are inconsistent with being a good judge, there’s just no doubt about it,” said Robert Byer, an attorney who ran unsuccessfully for Commonwealth Court in the early 1990s. “You get a judge that likes politics too much and that’s a dangerous thing.”

Twelve candidates are vying for three open seats on the state’s Supreme Court, and spending on the contests could be high. Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization, told the Tribune-Review that campaign donations often are most generous from those who have an interest in the courts. Read more

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Scholar: Citizens Actually Learning Little About WI High Court Rivals

Wisconsin_flag_mapWith fewer than 10 days until Election Day, rival candidates for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court have relied most on pitches  “insisting the other is too political to serve on the high court,” according to an Associated Press assessment.

 “(The race) reflects the contemporary world of partisan and ideological races rather than the old days of who was more qualified. Most citizens of the state will not have learned anything about the candidates,” said law professor Charles Franklin of Marquette University. 

Incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley and challenger James Daley, a trial judge, held their last joint appearance on Friday. The challenger derided the incumbent as an “activist judge,” a “friend of criminals,” and a foe of business, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported. The incumbent criticized her foe for taking her to task over votes not to uphold policies of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Read more

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Wisconsin Amendment a Political Effort to ‘Neuter’ Chief Justice?

Chief Justice Abrahamson

Chief Justice Abrahamson

Opponents of a proposed constitutional amendment to change the method of selecting the Wisconsin Chief Justice see it as “a thinly veiled mechanism to neuter” sitting Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, the Associated Press said.

Former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, a Democrat, said the ballot item initiated by the Republican-led legislature smacked of a partisan power grab. The current Chief Justice is the entire court system’s most valuable player, with long experience and depth of knowledge, she said. “When did it become bad in Wisconsin to be senior, mature, experienced and to be well-qualified?”

Its supporters say the amendment would enhance democracy. The Chief Justice role now goes to the justice with the greatest seniority on the bench. The amendment would have the seven justices elect the leader. The AP said Chief Justice Abrahamson, a member of the court’s liberal minority, would almost certainly be replaced if it is approved on April 7. Read more

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Huckabee Advocates Term Limits for High Court Justices



Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a prospective candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, said in California that U.S. Supreme Court justices should face term limits.

“Nobody should be in an unelected position for life,” the Los Angeles Times quoted Huckabee as saying. “If the president who appoints them can only serve eight years, the person they appoint should never serve 40. That has never made sense to me; it defies that sense of public service.”

Revising the lifetime appointments now given federal judges would require a constitutional amendment. Also backing court term limits, according to the newspaper, are potential GOP nomination candidates Rick Perry of Texas and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

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N.Y. Times: Surging Judicial Election Spending Sows Potential Conflicts

gavel_cash_20121102165220_320_240A recusal motion before the Wisconsin Supreme Court in a politicized case offers an example of how “a rising tide of money in state judicial races is creating potential conflicts for judges who sit on cases involving donors,” the New York Times reported, relying on data from Justice at Stake:

“Judges in the highest courts in 38 states face some type of election, and in the 2011-12 election cycle, the latest for which data is available, more than $56 million was spent on those races, nearly twice as much as in the 1990s, according to Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan research group.”

As mentioned earlier by Gavel Grab, a special prosecutor has requested that one or more Wisconsin Supreme Court justices recuse themselves from hearing challenges to a campaign finance investigation. Four justices are reported to have benefited from multimillion-dollar spending by three groups involved in the cases. The groups now reportedly under investigation for possible campaign finance violations in connection with Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s campaign during the recall election of 2011 and 2012.

“It boggles the mind that these justices are saying that they can somehow be impartial when these parties to the case have been essentially stuffing their pockets with huge wads of cash,” Matt Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, told the Times. His group is a JAS partner organization. Read more

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‘Contempt for Kansas’ Courts’ Shown by Legislators: Editorial

E69CB0D6193F5A84493B30750C6D812DKansas legislators, locked in disagreement with the judiciary  over public school funding, are finding “new ways each week to show contempt for Kansas’ courts” with legislation to bully them, a Lawrence Journal-World editorial says.

In addition to court funding legislation, a litany of other intimidation attempts includes, according to the editorial, “pending bills to lower justices’ mandatory retirement age and to replace the Kansas Court of Appeals with separate civil and criminal appellate courts. Waiting in the wings: proposed constitutional amendments that, if approved by the Legislature and voters, would have Kansas switch to direct partisan election of appellate judges, allow recall elections of judges statewide and make it harder for Supreme Court justices to survive retention votes.”

The editorial says what Kansans ought to be concerned about is how “the troubling lack of respect shown by one branch of state government for another … might lead to further assaults on the funding, authority and independence of the state judiciary. The courts must have all three in order to serve Kansans and justice properly.”


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Commentary: When Politics Trumps Justice in Alabama’s Courts

alabamaPolitical expediency has trumped justice when it comes to two of the hottest issues facing Alabama’s courts, and that’s because the state has an elected judiciary that has bowed  to prevailing pressure, Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress writes in a new analysis.

His commentary focuses on the Alabama Supreme Court’s defiance of a federal court order that local judges must offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples (check out Gavel Grab), and judicial overrides of jury verdicts that gave criminal defendants a life prison sentence, resulting in a death sentence instead  (find background here in Gavel Grab). Corriher writes:

“Simply put, Alabama’s judicial elections have made it impossible for litigants to expect justice if they are politically powerless or seen as different from the majority of citizens. Litigants who are not popular with a majority of voters cannot expect elected judges to risk their political futures by ruling in their favor.”

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JAS: So Far, Only One Side Buys TV Ads in Wisconsin Court Race

Outside spending is still slow to take off in the April 7 Wisconsin Supreme Court election, UrbanMilwaukee reports by quoting Justice at Stake data.

The campaign of incumbent Justice Ann Walsh Bradley has booked TV ads valued at more than $220,000, and challenger Judge James Daley and independent groups have booked no ads so far.

“This is very unusual for a Wisconsin race, given the extent to which Club for Growth, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Citizens for a Strong America, and the Greater Wisconsin Committee have played in the past,” says Laurie Kinney, JAS communications director. “That is one reason why we are watching closely to see if all that will change with a last-minute surge of ad buys. More contracts can definitely be booked before the election and it wouldn’t be unusual if they were, although this is pretty late.” Read more

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