Gavel Grab

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Judge on Fining Indigent Defendants: ‘There’s Another Way’

ShowImageWith one eye on the experience of Ferguson, Missouri, a Texas judge offers a first-person view titled “Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines.”

Judge Ed Spillane, presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and president of the Texas Municipal Courts Association, sums up the issue this way in a Washington Post commentary:

“In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay. There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.”

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Lynn Marks is Stepping Down at Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts



Lynn A. Marks is stepping down as executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group that has championed merit selection of judges in the state. A article about her departure stated:

“For 25 years, Marks has been the most consistently audible voice in the movement to change Pennsylvania’s system of electing judges to an appointment process that proponents say would limit the impact of politics on the judiciary.”

Marks will be succeeded by Maida Malone, an attorney with experience in the pharmaceutical and nonprofit sectors. Marks will continue in a consulting capacity. Read more

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Article: Judicial Elections and a ‘Dysfunctional’ Wisconsin Court

Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Wisconsin.svgWith a contentious race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court nearing its end, a lengthy article examines the way the court’s reputation has declined as its elections have been marked by big spending and political brawling.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court is seen as broken now. It think it’s fair to say its reputation is dysfunctional,” said Matthew Menendez of the Brennan Center for Justice. It is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

The election process for Supreme Court justices now “is almost like electing a representative court,” said former Justice Janine Geske. “I think people lose faith that the court is anything but a political machine and if people don’t respect the judicial process, the whole of the judiciary as checks and balances on the government, and protection of rights [is lost].” Read more

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Op-Ed: To Fill PA Court Vacancy, Test Merit Selection

As Gov. Tom Wolf prepares to fill a vacancy on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he would do well to appoint a nonpartisan screening commission to vet candidates and thereby test the kind of merit selection process that’s under consideration in the legislature, an op-ed suggests.

The Philadelphia Inquirer commentary was written by former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis, who now is  executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). It is a Justice at Stake partner organization. For background about the proposed merit selection of top Pennsylvania judges, see Gavel Grab.

The vacancy was created by the recent resignation of Justice Michael Eakin amid a lewd email scandal. In related coverage, had an article headlined, “Lawmakers propose sweeping judicial discipline reform in wake of email scandal.” And reported, “Judicial court freezes proceedings against former Justice Eakin.”

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Philadelphia Inquirer Takes Stock After Eakin Resignation

Two articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer reflect on the state of the courts after Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Eakin resigned last week rather than face his upcoming trial in the Court of Judicial discipline (see Gavel Grab).

In “Flawed ethics reviews, sharp criticism, and a justice’s path to resignation,” staff writers at the Philadelphia Inquirer recount the sprawling saga of the email porn scandal, tracing it from the early retirement in 2014 of Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery all the way up to Eakin’s resignation last Tuesday.

Also writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chris Mondics asks if “the shocks, humiliations and embarrassments that have been plaguing the Pennsylvania judicial system for decades [will] ever come to an end” after Eakin’s resignation made him the third Supreme Court Justice in four  years to be forced to leave the bench for disciplinary reasons.

“Scandal has become an enduring theme of the Pennsylvania judiciary,” Mondics writes, but the recent overhaul in personnel which saw the appointment of three new justice reflects the potential for a brighter future. Read more

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Six Years of Political Loggerheads Over Filling NJ High Court Seat

A political stalemate over filling an opening on the New Jersey Supreme Court “has stretched six years,” reports in bringing context to a revived dispute in the state. The court’s members are chosen through an appointive system similar to the federal model.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, recently pledged there will be no confirmation hearing for  Gov. Chris Christie’s latest nominee to the high court, Superior Court Judge David Bauman, a Republican whom Christie had unsuccessfully nominated before (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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Advocates Preparing Push for Merit Selection in Pennsylvania

PennsylvaniaPennsylvania’s living past and present governors are a bipartisan group, and while they’ve had their differences, they agree on one thing: “Elections are not a good way to pick state court judges.”

That’s according to a Reading Eagle article about a proposal to replace the contested election of top judges in Pennsylvania with a merit-based, appointive system. The state’s current governor and his five living predecessors made their views public last month (see Gavel Grab), and their endorsement is still rippling across the state in news articles such as the Eagle’s.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a group championing the reform, told the newspaper that advocates are working on a public education effort about merit selection and hoping that this spring, the proposal will advance in the legislature. Read more

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Editorial: Stop ‘Dumbed-Down’ PA Judicial Elections

A plain-speaking editorial in The Express-Times urges a shift to merit selection of top Pennsylvania judges, saying “the Legislature has an opportunity to wean the state judiciary of campaign money and put a stop to dumbed-down elections.”

It was the latest in a chorus of newspaper editorials spotlighting scandals affecting state courts, record-breaking spending in the 2015 state Supreme Court election and a proposal before legislators for an appointment-based selection system. Some of the other recent news coverage from Pennsylvania about elected judges included the following: Read more

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Commentary: It’s About Power, Not Judicial Accountability, in Florida

A proposal to impose term limits on appellate and Florida Supreme Court judges “is just the latest in a series of naked power grabs” by those intent on reducing judicial independence, two defenders of fair and impartial courts write in the Florida Politics blog.

The opinion comes from Eric Lesh of Lambda Legal and Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida. They are members of the Florida Access to Justice Project. The House recently approved the proposal but its prospects in the state Senate are uncertain (see Gavel Grab). Read more

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End to Circuit Court Elections is Debated in Maryland

maryland_flag1Maryland’s Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee has dealt a setback to legislation to end the elections of Circuit Court judges, but the proposal is still alive.

The Senate Committee gave an unfavorable recommendation to the proposal on a 6-5 vote, according to Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts. The House Judiciary Committee may vote on similar proposals this week.

Justice at Stake has supported an end to the Circuit Court elections in Maryland in statements to the legislature, recommending a series of Read more

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