Gavel Grab

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Campaign Donations Keep Climbing in PA High Court Race

Darvocet-Stack-of-Cash-GavelPolitical contributions to candidates running for three open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have climbed past $5 million, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

In an article that examines who is contributing and who is receiving, and why, the newspaper said lawyers have given about $1.5 million and “political action committees, unions, business owners, and regular folks” have brought the total to $5.6 million, between Jan. 1 and June 8. Six candidates emerged as the nominees after a May primary.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization, said that for lawyers and their clients who appear before the court, there is an appearance that money brings influence. She said all of the candidates are now sitting judges, and lawyers may feel pressure to give money. Read more

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Possible Challenge to New Kansas Court Funding Law Outlined

KansasDefenders of fair and impartial courts in Kansas are continuing to chart strategies for challenging a provision in a new funding law for the state’s judiciary. It has been widely described as an attack on the courts.

The Lawrence Journal-World said lawyers representing Judge Larry Solomon submitted a brief threatening to challenge the constitutionality of this year’s funding law, saying the independence of the judiciary is threatened. The controversial provision (see Gavel Grab) states that if the courts strike down a year-old administrative overhaul statute that removed authority of the Supreme Court to name district court chief judges, then the funding itself will be struck down.

Attorney Matt Menendez of the Brennan Center for Justice, who is among Judge Solomon’s lawyers, noted how the Kansas episode has attracted national attention. “People are terrified that this could happen in their own state,” he said. “This is being seen as a template where state courts around the country could come under attack. Nobody has seen anything like it.” Read more

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Report Spotlights High Spending, ‘Dark Money’ in MI Court Elections

gavel_cash_20121102165220_320_240Total spending in the race for three seats on the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014 reached $10.4 million, including $4.66 million in “dark money” sponsored TV ads supporting the Republican nominees, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network said in a report on Wednesday.

The report documented heavy dark money expenditures in state Supreme Court campaigns since 2000, and it said “The undisclosed spending is a direct threat to impartial justice.” When big political donors are anonymous, it said, “We can’t know when ethical, even legal, lines have been crossed. Transparency is inoculation against corruption. Dark money conceals corruption.” The report also examined campaigns for other offices, including state attorney general. 

MCFN relied on semi-annual reports by Justice at Stake and partner groups in stating that Michigan saw the most expensive Supreme Court elections in 2010 and 2012, and it predicted that Michigan would hold the same rank when a report is completed on 2014. In tracing dark money in elections for seats on the Michigan high court, it said: Read more

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Editorials Applaud Merit Selection Proposal in Pennsylvania

At least two Pennsylvania editorial boards leapt to applaud a newly proposed constitutional amendment to jettison elections of appellate judges and adopt an appointive, merit selection system (see Gavel Grab).

The proposal “will eliminate an electoral system that has become a big money game that favors special interests,” declared the Philadelphia Daily News. “It assures that only qualified candidates get on the list sent to the governor. It will end the ‘Who the heck are these people?’ reaction of voters who see the names on the ballot.”

The Patriot News stated, “It would ensure qualified candidates serve on our appellate courts. It would include the say of private citizens, members of the Legislature, the governor and, ultimately, all Pennsylvanians. It would eliminate the unseemly fundraising and campaigning that judicial candidates now have to endure. It would not eliminate the voice of the voter in determining who serves on the courts. It is the best plan we’ve heard to address this important topic.” Read more

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Prospects for Merit Selection Bill Assessed in Pennsylvania

A leading Pennsylvania House Republican said he supports a newly introduced bill to switch from elections to merit-based appointment of appellate judges (see Gavel Grab) and wants to see the full state House vote on it.

But there are challenges to overcome first in order to get the bill out of committee, state Rep. Ron Marsico, House Judiciary Committee chairman, told the Associated Press. The AP’s article quoted Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization, as saying about the legislation, “It’s a bipartisan, nonpartisan, issue for those who really care about the justice system.” Read more

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JAS Asks Upholding of AZ Rules to Protect Judicial Integrity

justice-scalesJustice at Stake is urging the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold rules from the Arizona Code of Judicial Ethics limiting partisan political activity by sitting judges and judicial candidates.

An amicus brief was submitted in support of the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct on behalf of Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Arizona Judges’ Association,  The Campaign Legal Center, Inc., and Lambda Legal. All but the Arizona Judges’ Association are JAS partner organizations.

In a statement about the brief, Deputy JAS Executive Director Liz Seaton referred to a judicial-elections case decided earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court (see Gavel Grab).

“The 9th Circuit will be the first federal court to interpret the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, which made clear that states can adopt carefully-designed rules of judicial conduct to preserve public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary,” Read more

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Brandenburg of JAS to Head Appleseed; Seaton Interim JAS Director



Bert Brandenburg, Justice at Stake’s executive director since 2004, will leave JAS in mid-August to become president of Appleseed, a national network of public interest law centers, the JAS Board of Directors announced on Friday. Liz Seaton, an attorney and JAS’s deputy executive director, will become the JAS interim executive director later this summer.

“It is with tremendous reluctance and gratitude for Bert’s many years of service that the Board has accepted his resignation,” said JAS Board Chair Mark Harrison. “Bert has been with Justice at Stake since its inception, and built the strong foundation on which the organization stands today and on which Justice at Stake can continue to fight effectively to preserve fair and impartial courts. As executive director, he established Justice at Stake as the national leader in the fair courts field. While we will miss him, his leadership of Appleseed will strengthen its partnership with JAS and add vigor to the fair-courts movement that Justice at Stake helped build.”



Brandenburg said, “It’s bittersweet to leave Justice at Stake after 14 years, but I’m proud of what we’ve done together: built a movement from scratch, put the fair courts issue on the national map, and won and defended reforms to keep courts fair and impartial. During that time, Justice at Stake has grown from four staff to more than a dozen, more than tripled its budget and recruited dozens of partners and allies to the fair courts cause.” He added, “Justice at Stake is poised to move forward with the fair courts field in our common crusade to preserve impartial justice.” Read more

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Pennsylvania’s Costly Primary Nearing the Finish Line

Pennsylvania_quarter,_reverse_side,_1999A costly and crowded primary race for Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court will be decided today, with a field of 12 candidates about to be whittled to six nominees for three seats.  Justice at Stake and Brennan Center ad spending analyses that peg broadcast TV spending at $2.4 million are cited in reports by The Center for Public Integrity and the Sharon (PA) Herald.   Meanwhile, a piece in the Philadelphia Business Journal  quotes JAS partner group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, noting that candidate fundraising at this point in the election cycle is easily outpacing fundraising in the state’s last contested Supreme Court race.  And the race’s most successful fundraiser to date, Democratic candidate Judge Kevin Dougherty, notched an endorsement from the state’s senior US Senator, Robert Casey, according to Politics PA.

So far, the race has seen no independent spending, as only candidates’ campaigns have aired ads or spent funds in the primary.  Ads have also avoided negative attacks, and ethics has been an important campaign theme. But there is concern that once the primary is over, both spending and negativity in the race may dramatically increase if outside partisan groups jump in.

In a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s, Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz notes, “There is a money problem threatening judicial races in America, but it is not the total amount spent. The problem is independent super PAC spending.”  He urges  who proceed to the general election to “agree among themselves to ask any outside groups who support them to simply contribute to the candidate’s campaign rather than spending money independently.”


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Concerns Raised About Big Fundraising in Pennsylvania Court Race

law-cash-21816475Advocates who would like to see reform of Pennsylvania’s judicial elections are raising concerns about fundraising in current races for three Supreme Court openings. The total has climbed to nearly $3 million and includes a personal friend’s $500,000 donation to one candidate.

“It was not that long ago when $500,000 was a whole campaign for appellate court candidates,” said Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, according to the Associated Press.

“Unfortunately, judicial races are fueled by money and too often that money comes from lawyers or potentially, litigants,” said Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which wants to see a merit selection system adopted for picking appellate judges. “There’s just something wrong with a system that practically requires the campaigns of judges and would-be judges to solicit campaign contributions and endorsements” from those who may appear before them in court, Marks said. Read more

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Millions Raised So Far by Pennsylvania Court Candidates

gavel_cash-300x202With a primary vote set for May 19, a dozen candidates for three seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have already raised nearly $3 million, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Because it is unprecedented to have three open seats in one Pennsylvania high court election, some analysts have forecast record-setting spending. The Inquirer noted that one candidate, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Kevin Dougherty, has reported raising more than $707,000. His brother is the local head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. At least $302,000 of Judge Dougherty’s campaign funds have come from that union.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts described Judge Dougherty as a credible high court candidate and also said, “It’s really hard to argue that people’s perception of such a system is not corroded when judges can accept huge amounts of money from groups and individuals who could very well come before them.” PMC is a Justice at Stake partner organization.  Read more

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