Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Judicial Elections' Category

Column: ‘Isolate’ Judges from Donors and Money

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court in WashingtonIn a column for the Pennsylvania legal journal The Legal Intelligencer, attorney Charles Kelbley asks “Does campaign money corrupt judges?”  Kelbley writes about the Supreme Court case Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, in which a Florida ban on personal campaign solicitations by judges is under review (see Gavel Grab).  His conclusion: the Florida ban doesn’t go far enough.

Kelbley notes that while Florida’s ethics rule does not allow judges or judicial candidates to ask for money themselves, it does allow them to form committees to fundraise on their behalf.  The committees may inform the judge or candidate who has donated, and the judge may thank the donor.  This, Kelbley argues, effectively undermines any attempt of the ban to keep judges from being influenced by campaign contributions.

“What we need, arguably, is a rule far stricter than the Florida rule, ” he writes. “We should have a rule that completely isolates judges and candidates from donors and money. Without that, the judiciary moves closer to the political branches’ characteristic embrace of donors and their donations, which are fraught with ethical danger.”

For a quick summary of what’s at issue in the Yulee case, watch this short video with Justice at Stake’s Scott Greytak.

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Story of Raising Money in Judicial Campaigns ‘Illuminating’

Former Chief Justice  Sue Bell Cobb

Former Chief Justice
Sue Bell Cobb

A first-person account by former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb of what it’s like to raise money for a judicial election continues to garner attention.

A piece in highlights what’s wrong with judicial elections and notes that Justice Cobb was “ashamed” of the amount of money involved in her campaigns, although she says the money never influenced her decisions on the bench.

“I assure you: I’ve never made a decision in a case in which I sided with a party because of a campaign donation. But those of us seeking judicial office sometimes find ourselves doing things that feel awfully unsavory.”

Alabama is one of 39 states that has some form of judicial elections.

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Justice Bradley Claims Bipartisan Support

Justice Bradley

Justice Bradley

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley supporters are fighting back against the partisan tone of this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court election. According to the La Crosse Tribune, Bradley’s endorsers now include Republican former Wisconsin First Lady Sue Ann Thompson, democratic U.S. Representative Ron Kind, a state senator from each party and more than 100 law enforcement officials.

“In this time of partisan divide, we join together in our support of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley,” said Thompson. “We share her commitment to maintaining a Wisconsin Supreme Court that is fair, neutral and nonpartisan.” The four state leaders announced a joint letter to be sent to Wisconsin news stations, explaining why voters should choose Bradley over challenger Judge James Daley on April 7.

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A Judge on the Hustings

A former Alabama Chief Justice, Sue Bell Cobb, provides a striking first-person account of judicial election campaigning in a Politico piece headlined “When big money met the courts.”  In it, she describes the process of politicking and the “awkward and uncomfortable” fundraising that have become requirements for candidates in judicial-election states. “How do we convince Americans that justice isn’t for sale, when in 39 states, it is?” she asks.

Cobb has been an outspoken critic of money and politics in judicial selection since leaving the Alabama court in 2011.  She writes that in her experience as a candidate, “to run for judge means pitching yourself to the public just as if you were running for dogcatcher.”

Her observations come as the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on the constitutionality of state bans on personal campaign solicitation by judges and judicial candidates, in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar.  A ruling in favor of such bans could mean judges would be prohibited from making the kind of personal donation requests Cobb writes about.  For a brief summary of what’s at stake in the Yulee case, watch this short video with Justice at Stake’s Scott Greytak.



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Voter Poll: Supreme Court Candidates Are Virtual Unknowns

According to the Erie Times-News, a Mercyhurst University poll revealed that a large majority of voters in Erie County do not know the names of the candidates in the primary for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which will be held on May 19th.

This lack of knowledge contrasts with the fact that 56 percent of voters also said that electing three justices is as important as electing the state’s governor. However, pollster Joe Morris noted that the purpose of the poll was not to “shame” the voters for not knowing the candidates, but rather “to encourage people to begin paying attention to this primary.” Morris also added that this lack of candidate recognition is to be expected for a state Supreme Court primary.

The primary is taking place to fill three vacancies (although one is being occupied until January 2016) on the court, two of which resulted from resignations due to political and personal scandal.




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MD Chief Justice Backs Amendment to End Judicial Elections

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera is calling for a Constitutional Amendment to end elections of circuit court judges in the state.

“In Maryland, we should strive to keep judges above the fray,” Barbera told a Senate committee considering the proposed amendment, according to The Daily Record. “Public perception of judges who accept [campaign] donations is damaged by the assumption that the judge will not be impartial.”

Currently, circuit court judges are appointed by the governor and face a contested election within two years of their appointment and then every 15 years.

Read more

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Ohio Chief Justice’s Reform Proposals Lack Political Will

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor

Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor met with the Northeast Ohio Media Group earlier this month to discuss her proposals to combat voter apathy in judicial elections. An article from explains that her three proposals – holding off-year elections, strengthening voter education outreach, and increasing experience requirements for judges – are not gaining much political momentum.

A voter education website will provide a “self promotional” tool for judicial candidates of all levels. Although this proposal has not garnered any significant opposition, experts doubt it will have much of an impact. The voters O’Connor wants to reach “are historically not the ones to research candidates,” the article explains. Still, supporters of the initiative say low information voters will benefit from having the highlights available on the one website.

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OH Court Fracking Dissenter Once Warned That Justice is for Sale

Outside the Ohio Supreme Court

Outside the Ohio Supreme Court

An Ohio Supreme Court justice’s dissent in a drilling industry case, mentioning the powerful influence of political donations, continues to capture attention on opinion pages in the state. Two years ago, the same outspoken judge warned that justice is for sale.

As Gavel Grab mentioned earlier, when the state’s high court recently ruled that oil-and-gas companies do not have to follow municipal regulations, Justice William O’Neill said in his dissent, “What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive.”

At the Athens News, a commentary by Terry Smith quoted Justice O’Neill, and it was headlined, “GOP legislators, justices sleeping with oily interests.” The commentary focused more on donations to legislators than to the campaigns of justices. The 4-3 court majority based its decision  on a law passed in 2004 that instituted uniform state regulations. Read more

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Commentary: Why Wisconsin Justices Should Agree to Recuse

630px-Seal_of_WisconsinFor certain justices sitting on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, recusal is an issue that won’t go away.

Gavel Grab has mentioned a special prosecutor’s recent request for one or more of the justices to recuse themselves from hearing challenges to a campaign finance investigation, and Justice at Stake’s remarks that this reflects the “bitter harvest of electing judges.” The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has reported that four justices benefited from extensive spending by three groups involved in the current cases.

Now a lengthy article by Bruce Murphy at Urban Milwaukee, an online publication, delves further into spending that benefited the justices. He zeroes in on spending by Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and says: Read more

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For Some, John Oliver Has Exposed a Threat to Our Democracy

john-oliver-judges-courtJohn Oliver’s biting analysis of judicial elections (see Gavel Grab) continues to attract near-saturation coverage, bringing home for some audiences an issue they’re unfamiliar with.

Laura Rosenfeld wrote at TechTimes, “There are many great things about John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight Show, but one of the best is the way he tackles topics in an in-depth and hilarious way that really illuminates aspects of society many Americans probably don’t know too much about.”

PoliticsPA used the segment skewering judicial elections in states including Pennsylvania to ask, “Reader Poll: Should PA Have Judicial Elections?” drew attention to a local ex-judge: “Watch: John Oliver slams former Philly Traffic Court judge Willie Singletary.” Read more

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