Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Judicial Elections' Category

Focus Turns to November Elections for PA Supreme Court

Looking ahead to Pennsylvania Supreme Court elections in November, media analysts are finding numerous ways to evaluate the upcoming contest and its impact.

“The results of the Nov. 3 general election could reaffirm or widen the court’s Republican majority, matching solid GOP control of the state Senate and House of Representatives, or, for the first time in six years, transfer control to Democratic allies of Gov. Tom Wolf, who could be in office through 2022,” WTAE reported on the heels of last week’s primary election. Six nominees were selected for three open seats.

The Legal Intelligencer had an article headlined, “After Primary, No Chance of Racial Diversity on High Court,” available through Google searching. Although two minority judges ran in the primary, they did not win, and all of the nominees are white. Read more

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PA Roundup: Historic Supreme Court Primary Results

The Tuesday primaries for three supreme court seats in Pennsylvania halved the high court hopefuls. In PennsylvaniaSupremeCourtNovember, Democrats David Wecht, Kevin Dougherty, and Christine Donohue will run against Republicans Anne Covey, Michael George, and Judith Olson, the Tribune Live reports.

The low key multimillion dollar election highlighted issues with Pennsylvania’s judicial selection system, Lehigh Valley Live editorialized. Judicial elections are notoriously low information races, and Pennsylvania is one of only six states that elect all judges, and the paper calls for this to change.Judicial elections turn judges into politicians, the editorial explains, and that will continue to be the case until legislators decide to implement merit selection instead.

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LA Times Against Upcoming Judicial Recall

Judge M. Marc Kelly

Judge M. Marc Kelly

The LA Times took a stand for Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly, who is facing a recall election after sentencing a child molester to 10 years in prison. The editorial contends that the judge has a judicious record, and the decision was his to make on the merits of the case.

Kelly says “he believed the minimum 25-year sentence required under Jessica’s Law, adopted by voters in 2006, would be unconstitutional in this case,” so he issued a lesser sentence. Public outrage followed, so now he may lose his job for acting within his authority, the editorial asserts.

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The Judicial Crisis Network Effect

A recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee delves into the political donations of California power player Robin Arkley II and his extensive involvement with the Judicial Crisis Network, formed in 2004 to influence state court elections.

The group has influenced many elections at different levels of government, including the ousting of Democratic Senator Tom Daschle from South Dakota, and the passing of some controversial ballot measures in Wisconsin. It was also instrumental in efforts supporting President George W. Bush’s nominees, and in opposing President Barack Obama’s nominees. The central focus of the group, however, is to influence state judiciaries, the article explains.

Many conservative groups have taken this strategy, the article continues, citing a Justice at Stake report which revealed that Republican groups spent $26.3 million on state court races, compared to the $11.9 million spent by liberal groups. The newly high dollar elections also attract more dark money (untraceable donations) that erode public trust in the judiciary. This is not likely to end any time soon, the op-ed concludes, “thanks in no small part to seeds planted by Arkley and the ongoing influence of the Judicial Crisis Network.”

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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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Spending, Campaigning Surge Ahead of Pennsylvania Judicial Primary

1048px-Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Pennsylvania.svgPennsylvania’s crowded field of Supreme Court candidates is spending big and campaigning hard in the final hours before primary day, according to media coverage.

A Justice at Stake/Brennan Center analysis of television ad spending (see Gavel Grab) was cited on the PoliticsPA news website, which noted that the highest spender on TV ads so far is Democrat Kevin Dougherty, whose campaign has shelled out more than a million dollars. Justice at Stake’s Bert Brandenburg and the Brennan Center’s Alicia Bannon are both quoted in the piece.  Meanwhile, coverage in The Legal Intelligencer  also cites the JAS/Brennan ad spending report, and notes that the sources of candidates’ money are heavily concentrated among lawyers, unions, and lawyer-funded PACs.

This year’s Supreme Court election will have long-lasting impacts, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “For the scandal-plagued high court, both parties feature primary races with six candidates vying for the three nominations at stake on each side, ” the Post-Gazette reports. “Those nominations will set the stage for a November election that will determine the court’s partisan balance for years to come.”

The court’s recent history of scandals and embarrassments has created significant campaign fodder for the candidates themselves.  JAS and the Brennan Center report that ethics themes predominate in current judicial campaign ads. The one incumbent in the race, Justice Correale Stevens, a Republican, last week proposed a plan to improve transparency and expand ethics training on the high court, according to Wilkes-Barre’s Times Leader.

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Judicial Fundraising ‘Can Carry A Strong Scent’ In Practice

Fmr. Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson

Fmr. Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson

An article in the Texas Tribune on Friday analyzed the prudence of electing judges in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, which upheld a state’s right to restrict the fundraising activities of judicial candidates.

This fundraising “smells just fine in the civics textbooks,” the article editorializes, “but in practice, it can carry a strong scent, especially in judicial races.” Former Chief Justices Wallace Jefferson and Tom Phillips agree, as they wrote in an amicus brief for Williams-Yulee. “As former Chief Justices who have observed countless elections in our own States, and run as candidates for judicial office, we are well-acquainted with the genuine dangers — and sometimes actual abuse — present when judicial candidates personally solicit campaign contributions from parties and lawyers,” they wrote. Two former Alabama chiefs, including Sue Bell Cobb, a crusader against judicial elections, joined the brief.

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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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Pennsylvania Court Primary TV Ad Buys Surge to $2.4 Million

A barrage of last-minute advertising has pushed TV ad buys in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court primary up to at least $2.4 million as of Friday, representing almost $1 million in new ad buys in three days, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said in a joint analysis. The primary will be held on Tuesday.

Seven of the 12 candidates seeking nomination to run for three open seats are running TV ads, and they can be viewed at the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” website. The ads focus on themes of ethics and candidate qualifications.

“Unfortunately, it looks like Pennsylvanians could be heading for an historically costly battle over three Supreme Court seats,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said. “The TV ad dollars are multiplying literally overnight, and this is just for the primary. The spectacle of so much spending, on top of recent scandals affecting the Court, ought to put insulating judges from money and political pressure at the top of Pennsylvania’s agenda.” Read more

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Blog: ‘Best Pa. Supreme Court Race Money Can Buy?’

PennsylvaniaSupremeCourtAlmost $1.5 million in candidate purchases for TV ad air time in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court primary, documented by Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice on Wednesday (see Gavel Grab), began capturing attention and some commentary in the news media.

“The groups noted contributions to judicial candidates typically come from lawyers and businesses,” reported the Associated Press. “Bert Brandenburg, director of Justice at Stake, says scandals have hurt public trust of the state’s high court.”

A blog gave thorough coverage to the groups’ analysis under this headline: “At $1.5 million in ad spending, is this the best Pa. Supreme Court race money can buy?” The post also noted about the candidates running for three open seats on the high court:

At judicial forums in Pittsburgh and Harrisburg last month, all 12 candidates separately bemoaned the influence of money on the appellate races. But they all insisted that their independence would not be compromised by the influx of money into their respective campaigns.”

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