In Pennsylvania, JAS Partner Decries ‘Scandal After Scandal’

law-cash-21816475While spending in Pennsylvania judicial elections has surged, citizens may be dismayed by the result, a prominent defender of fair and impartial courts says in a news article that also cited Justice at Stake.

“What’s happened is, even after this ever-increasing amount of money spent, what have Pennsylvanians gotten?” said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, according to WITF.

“They’ve gotten scandal after scandal, and jurists’ campaign coffers are flowing from the very same lawyers and litigants that will appear before them.” At least $15.9 million was spent in the last Pennsylvania Supreme Court election before Election Day, the article noted, citing JAS and the Brennan Center for Justice as its source; the spending totals last year broke the previous documented record for any supreme court race in the nation. (more…)

A Salute to Our Partner Organization on its 10th Anniversary


This month marks the 10-year anniversary of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) and its work to rebuild justice across the United States. Our friends at IAALS deserve hearty applause.

In 2006, IAALS opened its doors at the University of Denver with a mission to continuously improve the American legal system and reestablish it as the aspirational model for justice around the world.

The Institute’s evolution and growth has been remarkable and is a testament to IAALS’  pioneering model. It is not just a place where problems are studied and solutions crafted, but one where action is taken and real, and positive changes are made. (more…)

Susan Liss Named as New Justice at Stake Executive Director

lissJustice at Stake’s Board of Directors is  pleased to announce that after a nationwide search, Susan M. Liss was selected to assume the role of Executive Director of Justice at Stake. Liss will begin a transition into her new role this month, before joining the organization full-time on February 16.

Liss brings to her new role an unparalleled combination of strong leadership, passionate commitment to issues of justice and democracy, and dedication to the cause of fair and impartial courts. She currently serves as  Executive Director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, overseeing all operations of a $34 million dollar organization with global reach. She has held numerous posts in government service, and has also previously led the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner organization that also works on fair-courts issues.

“We could not be more enthusiastic about the selection of Susan Liss to lead Justice at Stake at this critical juncture in its history,” said Mark Harrison, Justice at Stake Board Chair. “This choice is emblematic of an exciting new direction for JAS, and the start of a new chapter in our leadership of the fair-courts field. Under Susan’s proven leadership, we are absolutely confident that Justice at Stake can drive major and lasting reforms that will protect fair and impartial courts well into the future.”

“It is a great privilege to accept this opportunity to lead Justice at Stake as its Executive Director,” Liss said. “I have watched with great concern as our courts at all levels have come under attack by special interests, while the flow of money into judicial elections has continued to increase. JAS has grown into the most credible bipartisan organization fighting back against these harmful influences. I believe deeply in its mission, and am eager to work with the JAS staff to fight harder than ever to protect the courts that protect all our rights.”

Liss will assume Executive Director duties at JAS from Liz Seaton, the current Interim Executive Director of JAS, who will return to her prior role as Deputy Executive Director. Longtime Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg departed the organization to assume the role of President of Appleseed in August of 2015. To read a full news release, click here.

JAS Mourns Loss of Former Board Member, Landon Rowland

landonrowland_750xx750-424-0-326Justice at Stake noted with sadness that Landon Rowland, a former member of the JAS Board of Directors, died December 28 in Kansas City following a long illness.  Rowland was a staunch supporter of fair courts in addition to his many other professional and philanthropic pursuits.  The Kansas City Business Journal lauded Rowland as a “business and philanthropic giant” who “left a lasting mark” on the city. The Kansas City Star noted that Rowland led the expansion of Kansas City Southern Industries as its president and CEO, and  was instrumental in establishing the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City. “Rowland also helped establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and was an important supporter of the American Royal Horse Show and the American art collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art,” the Star reported.

In 2013, Rowland testified in the Kansas legislature against a proposed measure to replace the state’s merit selection system for top state judges (see Gavel Grab). “We depend on a free market system. Small business depends on a fair and impartial judiciary,”  Rowland testified, according to an Associated Press article. He noted that the Kansas court system has a reputation for fair, impartial and qualified judges.

Rowland was 78.


PA News Media: Merit Commended; JAS, Partners Cited

justice-scalesHow timely that a proposal to end elections of top judges in Pennsylvania is advancing in the legislature at the same time a “parade of personal, dirty ads” has begun airing in this year’s high court election, a Scranton Times-Tribune editorial said.

Endorsing a merit-based selection system as the best replacement for judicial elections, the editorial concluded, “An ineffective system, a series of scandals involving Supreme Court justices and the dirty ad campaigns should be catalysts for reform.” A state House panel voted its approval earlier this week of a merit system plan, and its action was commended as bipartisan and needed in a column.

Meanwhile the intensity of charges and countercharges amid outside spending in the court election was reflected by news articles reporting that one targeted candidate, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, dispatched a “cease-and-desist” letter to  Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform over a negative ad the letter called false and defamatory. (more…)

Concerns Raised by JAS, Partners After PA Ad War Erupts

With two independent groups embroiled in an ad war over candidates for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Justice at Stake and its partner organizations raised concerns.

“We knew all along we’d likely see outside involvement on both sides in this race before it was all over,” said Liz Seaton, JAS interim executive director, in a statement.  “As non-candidate groups get involved and up the ante in judicial elections, the need for real reform becomes more urgent.”

“These outside groups are driving the negativity in this race, as candidate ads remain wholly positive. They demonstrate a disturbing trend of outside groups using a justice’s record in criminal matters to discredit them, which can have real consequences for the cases coming before the courts,” said Matt Menendez, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

National Group Joins PA Court Race With Critical Advertising

PennsylvaniaThe Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group that has gotten involved in some recent judicial elections, has jumped into the Pennsylvania Supreme Court election with ads “attacking” a Democratic candidate, Newsworks reported.

The ad assailing Judge Kevin Dougherty “focuses on his role in a notorious criminal case” in which custody for a young girl was given to her aunt, a convicted murderer, and later was abused, Newsworks said. The Dougherty camp said the judge never was accused of wrongdoing and he didn’t know about the aunt’s history.

Decrying the ad was Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, as she condemned earlier TV ads that attacked Republican candidates. “We’ve seen this now from both sides,” Marks said. “We feel equally as strongly, whether it’s the Republican State Leadership Committee or another group. These negative ads serve no purpose other than discouraging voters from carefully evaluating judicial candidates.” (more…)

Justice at Stake, Partners Cited in Pennsylvania Court Race Coverage

gavel_cash-300x202As TV advertising heats up in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections, more media outlets are raising questions about both negative advertising and overall spending, while citing Justice at Stake and its partner groups.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial condemned recent ads by “mudslingers” with Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform (see Gavel Grab) and quoted Justice at Stake as saying, “Since 2000, elected Supreme Courts have been Ground Zero of an unprecedented money war, in which competing groups have spent tens of millions on negative ads, in an attempt to pack courts with judges friendly to their agendas.” The editorial also cited concerns raised by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Meanwhile Public News Service had an article headlined, “Supreme Court Election Campaign Spending Raises Concerns.” Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts told the news service that as soaring on judicial elections surges, voters may start to ask whether judges are impartial. Laurie Kinney of Justice at Stake said that in the court races that are the most contentious and and costly, special interests are involved in the spending. (more…)

Outside Spending Launched in Pennsylvania Court Race

PennsylvaniaSupremeCourtThe Nov. 3 election for three seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is less than two weeks away, and TV ad spending in the race has approached $863,000, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said on Friday. They said a group funded mainly by plaintiff trial lawyers, Pennsylvanians for Judicial Reform, has started running TV ads opposing the Republican candidates for the high court and purchased contracts for $56,320 at three stations.

“As expected, the TV ad war in Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court election is heating up as we get closer to Election Day,” said Interim JAS Executive Director Liz Seaton. “This election has all the ingredients to be a highly contentious and expensive race, with a record number of seats open and the court’s ideological balance in play. A final onslaught of ads from all sides is highly likely in upcoming weeks.”

“We are seeing a rapid uptick in TV spending in just a short few weeks,” said Matthew Menendez, counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “With millions of dollars raised in this contest, voters can expect an ad blitz between now and Election Day. And we are watching for a possible flood of outside money shortly before the election.” (more…)

Appeals Court Urged to Uphold Rules to Protect Judicial Integrity

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument earlier this month in an Arizona case where Justice at Stake and allied groups have asked the court to uphold rules limiting partisan political activity by sitting judges and judicial candidates alike.

The Brennan Center for Justice, a JAS partner organization, has a report at its blog on the themes that were struck when the appeal was heard in San Francisco. “Judicial integrity is threatened by not just the candidates campaigning from the bench, but also, as Ninth Circuit Judge Consuelo Callahan dubbed them, ‘the wannabes,’” Kate Perry concludes in the post.

You can learn background of the case from Gavel Grab. An amicus brief was submitted in the case in support of the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct on behalf of Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center, the Arizona Judges’ Association,  The Campaign Legal Center, Inc., and Lambda Legal. A video of the oral argument is available by clicking here.