Gavel Grab

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‘Control’ of Impartial KS Courts at Issue, Lawyer for Judge Says

Kansas-Flag-2A lawyer for District Judge Larry Solomon of Kingman County, Kansas blasted in court the “tyrannical” actions of the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback. Solomon is challenging a 2014 law that removed the state Supreme Court’s authority to name chief judges in 31 judicial districts. 

Solomon also is challenging the legislature’s voting for a separate provision to defund state courts if they strike down the controversial administrative overhaul provision. Brownback signed both measures into law. “Their desire for control of the Kansas independent judicial system blinded their judgment and led them to pass laws creating a potential chaotic situation,” lawer Pedro Irigonegaray said, according to an Associated Press article about the Friday hearing. 

Solomon’s lawsuit is viewed by some legal experts as cutting “at the very heart of an independent judicial system,” the Lawrence Journal-World reported. But Stephen McAllister, the Kansas solicitor general, defended the actions as within the legislature’s legal authority. “There’s no precedent there saying there’s an inherent separation of powers … that the top court in the system must be able to choose every chief judge,” McAllister said, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.  Read more

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Constitutional Crisis Ahead Over School Funding in Kansas?

A constitutional crisis may be ahead if the Kansas Supreme Court directs the legislature to increase school funding, and the legislature balks, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis warned.

“The Legislature, I think, is very likely to try to defy the court. Where it goes from there I don’t exactly know because it’s uncharted territory,” Davis told a political gathering, according to the Hays Daily News

For background about the potential showdown over school funding, see Gavel Grab. Meanwhile, 6News Lawrence reported, “Kansas judicial branch receives national recognition for court caseload reporting excellence.” The recognition came from the National Center for State Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization.

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Legislatures Have Taken Aim at Merit Selection in 2015

justice-scalesMerit-based systems for choosing state judges have come under assault around the country this year. “Major changes failed to pass” but the efforts signal where legislatures likely will be active next year, Gavel to Gavel reports.

Gavel to Gavel is a publication of the National Center for State Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization. The state-by-state rundown shows that out of the 17 state merit selection systems reviewed, only seven had no attempts to alter their systems. The study examines attempts to change, alter or end merit selection systems. 

Kansas ranked first as the state with the most efforts to change, alter or end the merit selection system (eight in total) with South Carolina coming in a close second with six attempts.

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Gender Gap: 36 Percent of Highest State Court Judges are Women

From the nation’s first woman elected as a justice of the Ohio Supreme Court in 1923, gender diversity has increased to women comprising 36 percent of all justices on states’ highest courts.

That gender gap data from the National Center for State Courts, a Justice at Stake partner organization, was cited by a Washington Post article as a sidebar to a political dispute over a judgeship in Virginia.

According to the article, “Women justices are in the majority on what the NCSC calls ‘courts of last resort’ in nine states: Washington, Tennessee, California, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Massachusetts. Courts in 20 states were led by woman chief justices as of May of this year, the center reports.”

Justice at Stake believes that diversity on the bench improves the quality of justice and builds faith and confidence in the legitimacy of the courts. You can learn more from the JAS web page on the topic.

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IAALS Unveils New Website

logo_squareIAALS, the Denver-based Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, has unveiled a new website to showcase its work.

“Everyone has a stake in improving our courts and improving the civil justice system as a whole,” said IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis in a press release, “so we would like to expand access to the incredible and impactful work that IAALS is doing to advance the system. We hope this new website will be a wider window into our world, as well as an open door to come inside, learn more, and work with us along the way—because we can’t do it alone.”

IAALS is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

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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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