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Alabama’s Former Chief Justice: Money is “King” in Judicial Races

Former Chief Justice  Sue Bell Cobb

Former Chief Justice
Sue Bell Cobb

Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, who wrote a memorable – and scorching – Politico piece earlier this year about the perils of judicial fundraising (see Gavel Grab), is continuing her public plea for judicial selection reform.

In an Associated Press piece published in the Montgomery Advertiser, Cobb says that “money has now become the king” in judicial elections.   She argues that law firms and businesses that a judge solicits for campaign donations rarely feel they can refuse.  The best solution, she maintains, would be a merit selection system designed to keep financial and political pressure away from judges and out of the courtroom.

“What former Justice Cobb is saying publicly, is what a lot of judges feel privately but are afraid to say,” Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg told AP.

Cobb’s original Politico account of her fundraising experiences sparked significant controversy and a spate of follow-up articles and interviews.  She continues to be outspoken about what she has called the “tawdry” process of  judicial fundraising and campaigning (see Gavel Grab).

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West Virginia Judicial Elections Become Nonpartisan

On March 25th, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill to eliminate party identification in West Virginia’s judicial elections, prompting a mixed reaction from activists around the state.

West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts said the only downside is that the bill took so long to pass – nearly two decades of Chamber advocacy work, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. Roberts went on to argue that nonpartisan judicial elections are especially important in West Virginia. “We have limited appellate review,” he explained, “and that means there is less discussion about cases, fewer eyes on individual cases and that makes it all the more important that the courts get it right every time, every place, which of course is a virtual impossibility.”

Anthony Majestro, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice disagrees, suggesting that removing party identification also removes valuable voter information. Moreover, the legislation does not address campaign spending, a growing concern across the nation. Majestro explained that similar changes have led to increased independent expenditures in other states, “with special interests hiding behind misleading names and refusing to disclose who has funded the effort.” An amendment to address this problem by expanding the state’s public financing program was not given much consideration.

The article explains that this bill is “part of a larger reform package” aimed at improving the judicial and business environments in the state. In the meantime, Roberts insists that “getting the politics out of the courts is a very important step on the way to ensuring a better legal climate in West Virginia and fairer trials for everybody.”

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Maryland Considers Retention Elections for Trial Judges

Thomas V. Mike Miller

Thomas V. Mike Miller

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller wants to put an end to contested elections for the state’s circuit court judges. The Baltimore Sun reports he has called to replace them with retention (up-or-down) elections.

The judges, who preside over Maryland’s more serious criminal and civil cases, are appointed by the governor for a 15-year term, subject to Senate approval. When that initial term is up, the judges must run in “the next possible election,” the article explains. The judges usually run in (and win) both parties’ primary elections, but sometimes a challenger will win one primary, forcing a general election. Miller called this system, when judges are forced to raise money for electoral campaigns, “very unseemly,” and many of his colleagues agree.

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West Virginia Weighs Nonpartisan Judicial Elections

West Virginia legislators will soon debate a measure to make all judicial elections nonpartisan, according to a Herald-Dispatch article.

Senate Bill 10, which would remove party affiliation from judicial nominees, was advanced by Republican leadership as an attempt to clean up the state’s tarnished judicial image. “If enacted,” the article reports, “the bill would require all magistrate and circuit court elections to be nonpartisan starting in 2016. Elections for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals would be nonpartisan for the single seat available in 2016, and nonpartisan for every race after that, including two seats that will be up for election in 2020, and two seats in 2024.”

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Texas Editorial: 'Axing' Straight-Party Voting Won't Fix Selection Flaws

Electing judges is “no way to choose officials who can change Texans’ lives with their decisions,” states a Ft. Worth Star-Telegram editorial.

Of the eight million Texans who voted int he presidential election, only six million voted in four of six races to decide who would sit on the state’s highest appeals courts. With many voters simply skipping the down-ballot races or voting straight-ticket, it is entirely possible most Texans “might have known nothing about the candidates in the six statewide judicial contests.”

For many voters who chose the straight-ticket option, their vote didn’t count at all unless they voted Republican or Libertarian; The Democrats and the Green Party ran candidates in only two statewide races.

“Results like those make it increasingly difficult to buy into the fiction that Texans want to elect their judges,” the editorial states.  Read more

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Washington Post Blog Sees Chance For Filibuster Reform

Regardless of who wins on Election Day, a blog piece from Washington Post’s In The Loop says that one thing to watch for in the early days of the next Senate session is possible action on filibuster reform.

Proponents of filibuster reform are considering exercising the “constitutional option.” According to a 2010 blog piece from Washington Post’s Wonkblog, the constitutional option works around the theory that in order to fulfill Article 1, Section V of the Constitution, which states that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings,” the chair can rule against a filibuster keeping the Senate from determining its own rules and the Senate can then move to settle the issue via majority vote.

The “crux of the argument” for taking the constitutional option, according to the In The Loop piece, is that the previous session’s rules don’t necessarily carry over to the next session. However, the change would have to be made fairly quickly once the new Congress convenes. Read more

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Commentator Assails Michigan Court, Praises Reform Plan

Phil Power, president of a think tank named The Center for Michigan, likes the recommendations for Michigan judicial election reform made recently by a nonpartisan task force, and he thinks they should be more than a conversation-starter.

“When I think about the Michigan Supreme Court, I have to sadly conclude that it represents the very best justice that partisan money can buy. And that’s a scandal and a disgrace,” Power writes in a Holland (Mi.) Sentinel column.

The task force’s report makes for “pretty scary reading,” Power says. He finds disturbing that “[t]he 2010 campaign for our Supreme Court was the most expensive and the most secretive in the nation,” and also that “in the 1990s, a whopping 86 percent of Michigan Supreme Court cases involved contributors to justices’ campaigns, and there’s no reason to think that’s changed.”

The task force, for its leading recommendations, urged full disclosure of all funding for state Supreme Court campaign advertising and open, nonpartisan primaries for the Supreme Court.

“Justice [Marilyn] Kelly’s task force has at least got the conversation started. And even cynics like me might hope that our leaders might, at some point, be willing to do something to benefit our entire state,” Power concludes.

You can learn more about the task force and other appraisals of its findings from Gavel Grab.

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Arkansas Task Force Considers Reforms for Judicial Elections

A task force in Arkansas, created in response to soaring spending in judicial elections in some other states, is weighing possible reforms.

State Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown, chairman of the Arkansas Bar Association’s Task Force on Judicial Election Reform, said at a panel discussion in Little Rock that judicial races ought to be different from races for other elective offices.  “If they’re not different, it will indeed undermine the dignity and the respect for the courts,” he cautioned, according to an Arkansas News article.

The task force is considering these ideas: A response committee to publicly identify falsehoods issued in judicial races; a voter guide with information about candidates for judgeships, provided by the candidates; and urge candidates to pledge voluntarily to run fair campaigns and abide by canons of judicial conduct.

Also participating in the panel was state Sen. Gilbert Baker,  a Republican critic of the task force’s work.

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Divergent Proposals on Partisanship in Court Elections

A bill in Missouri would remove partisanship from most judicial races, while a sharply divergent proposal in North Carolina would restore partisan labels for candidates seeking a seat on the bench.

In Missouri, legislation would strip party identification from candidates for judgeships in parts of the state not covered by the Missouri Plan, a nationally recognized merit-based system for selecting judges.

Under the Missouri Plan, a nominating commission currently submits a slate of three candidates to the Missouri governor, who chooses from that list. The  merit system is used for selecting appellate court judges and trial court judges in urban counties. The judges may be retained or removed by voters later.

Republican State Sen. Kevin Engler said about his bill, according to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, “When they are elected, we expect them to be nonpartisan.” He asked, why shouldn’t candidates run for office that way, too?

In North Carolina, a bill would require party labels for candidates for District Court, Superior Court, Appellate Court, and the state Supreme Court starting in 2012. For races that have been nonpartisan since 2002, it would add an element of party politics, reported the Carolina Journal.

Republican State Sen. Jerry Tillman, the chief sponsor, explained, “People still believe that partisan labels mean something.” He added, “This gives voters a little something to go off. Does it tell them everything? No. But it tells them more than they know now.”

The issue of whether to have partisan labels for judicial candidates seemed to be getting attention this week; a day ago, Gavel Grab mentioned a proposed referendum in Montana that would require candidates for district court judgeships and the state Supreme Court to run with partisan labels.

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Partisan Judicial Elections Proposed for MT

A proposed referendum for the 2012 ballot in Montana would require candidates for district court judgeships and the state Supreme Court to run with partisan labels.

Currently, the state’s judicial elections are nonpartisan. State Rep. Michael More, a Republican and sponsor of the referendum bill, said about the measure, “The issue is greater transparency in the judicial branch.” According to a Helena Independent Record article, he continued:

“We all bring our biases to the table.

“I think it’s just a matter of maturity to require that (judicial candidates) reveal those biases going into an election.”

But Niki Zupanic, public policy director of the ACLU of Montana, warned, “We strongly feel this will entrench our judiciary in partisan politics.”

And Ed Bartlett, a lobbyist for the Montana Judges Association, said the proposal “would take away, or perhaps be contrary to, the independence and impartiality of the district court judges and Supreme Court justices,” an Associated Press article reported.

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