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History-Making Utah Judge: Great Value in Judicial Diversity

Utah State Rep. Merrill Nelson, a Republican and vice chairman of the House Judiciary, says a screening commission that vets candidates for judgeships should stop weighing diversity on the bench as a factor, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Nelson interprets the state Constitution and state law as supporting his view.

But “the language is not so clear,” the newspaper reports, and retired 3rd District Judge Tyrone Medley, the only African American who has served on the state bench, sees great value in judicial diversity.

“Our judicial system relies heavily on the public trust and confidence in the court system,” Medley said. If the population diversifies and the courts do not, the judiciary ‘runs the risk of challenging and eroding public confidence in the court system.’

“Along that same line, I think diversity, in fact, enhances the legitimacy of the court system and is consistent with our population following the rule of law,” he said. “Without it, you have a scenario where, at a minimum, you have a perceived bias in the decision-making process.”

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Some Judicial Races ‘Hidden’ on Primary Ballot Now, Judge Says

Under a new process for choosing West Virginia judges in a nonpartisan election, the candidates’ names will appear so far down the primary ballot in some jurisdictions that they will seem virtually hidden, said one judge who spoke publicly about the change.

“Those elections are hidden at the back of the ballot and, in terms of how we put the ballots together, that’s a real problem in terms of judicial elections, especially on the Republican side because of the big list,” Raleigh Circuit Judge John Hutchison said, according to Because the names of 250 potential delegates to the Republican National Convention are listed first, a voter using a voting machine in Raleigh County must first punch “next page” 17 times to get to the nonpartisan election, he said. Hutchison said a voter education effort is needed. Read more

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Proposed Changes to OK Merit Criticized; Justice at Stake Cited

OklahomaCritics of a bill proposing changes to the way judges are appointed in Oklahoma say it would politicize the process. A Norman Transcript article about the bill cites Justice at Stake.

Among its provisions, the bill would require confirmation of a governor’s judicial appointees by a committee of House and Senate members, making it more like the federal confirmation process, the newspaper says. The bill is awaiting action by the full state Senate (see Gavel Grab for background).

“All you’ve got to do is look at what goes on in Washington right now. Is that what you want? Cause that is totally political. The judiciary has got to be independent,” said former Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Charles Johnson.  Read more

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Idaho Court Primary Features Four Candidates for One Seat

Idaho_quarter,_reverse_side,_2007In a primary scheduled for May 17, four candidates are running for a single seat on the Idaho Supreme Court in a nonpartisan race. Although the justices “have a heavy hand in reshaping the state for years,” according to The Associated Press, turnout is not expected to be high.

The candidates are Clive Strong, a deputy attorney general; Curt McKenzie, a Republican state senator; Robyn Brody, an attorney; and Idaho Court of Appeals Judge Sergio Gutierrez. The AP notes that “Idaho is currently just one of two states with no supreme court justices who are female or people of color.”

The Spokesman-Review has this article quoting each of the candidates regarding his or her views about diversity on the court, and this article quoting a justice who is stepping down from the bench. It is headlined, “Justice Jones: ‘Judicial elections are different kinds of animals.’”

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Maryland Circuit Court Elections a ‘Muddled System,’ Editorial Says

Maryland’s process for electing Circuit Court judges, which has repeatedly been targeted for reform, is “a muddled system whose pretense at nonpartisanship fools no one,” a editorial said.

As Exhibit A for its argument, the editorial said the Republican Central Committee invited to a local primary election forum “only GOP candidates for the four Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judgeships at stake in this year’s election,” although the elections were nonpartisan, with the names of both Democrats and Republicans appearing on the same ballots. Read more

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Wednesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • USA Today reported about a ruling on Tuesday, “The Supreme Court deadlocked Tuesday for the third time since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death left it with only eight members, but it found a narrow way to settle a spat over taxes between California and Nevada.”
  • Reporting on a decision by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a New York Times headline said, “Appeals Court Favors Transgender Student in Virginia Restroom Case.”
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Op-ed Praises Public Financing in W.Va. Court Elections, Cites JAS

West_Virginia_quarter,_reverse_side,_2005It has taken time to restore the integrity of West Virginia’s courts, but that effort is proceeding apace and has been helped by the public financing of judicial elections, approved in 2010, writes the president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.

In a West Virginia Record commentary, Paige Flanigan cites Justice at Stake in discussing the impact of big spending and special interests on public confidence in fair and impartial courts:

“The problem is the ‘new politics of judicial elections.’ According to the national Justice at Stake campaign, ‘cash has become king in judicial elections’ and ‘elected Supreme Courts have been Ground Zero of an unprecedented money war.’ According to its figures, from 2000 – 2009 more than $206.4 million was raised by Supreme Court candidates nationally. That figure is double what was raised in the 1990s – and doesn’t include the millions more being spent in ‘independent’ campaigns. Public confidence in the impartiality of our courts has been damaged.”

Read more

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A ‘Paralyzed’ Supreme Court With Seat Unfilled?

With a standoff in Washington over filling a Supreme Court vacancy, is there a risk of more high-profile cases resulting in a 4-4 tie?

Some analysts say so, and it’s Dana Milbank’s theme in a Washington Post column about oral arguments before the court on Monday regarding a challenge to President Obama’s executive action to protect millions of immigrants from deportation:

“The Senate’s refusal to confirm a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia has left the U.S. high court evenly split and increasingly paralyzed. As the justices heard arguments about President Obama’s executive actions on illegal immigration, there were really only two possible results: chaos or more chaos.”

Read more

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A Local Chamber of Commerce Renews Backing for Merit Selection

54e7781eaab6d.imageThe Lancaster (Pa.) Chamber of Commerce board of directors has renewed its backing for the merit selection of top judges in Pennsylvania, saying such a system “would promote stability and impartiality in our courts,” and make the commonwealth more attractive to businesses. reported the development. The state legislature is weighing a switch to the merit-based, appointive-and-retention-election system for choosing top judges, and the issue has drawn a higher profile in the wake of recent court scandals (see Gavel Grab). A costly election for the state Supreme Court in 2015 also has given supporters of merit selection more ammunition for their effort.

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Tuesday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A panel of federal judges rejected a request by U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown to throw out congressional boundaries in a map approved earlier by the state Supreme Court, after a long fight, The Associated Press said.
  • Following New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s recent nomination of Walter Timpone for the state Supreme Court, New Jersey Law Journal reported, “NJ Judicial Crisis Nearing an End.”
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