Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Justice at Stake' Category

JAS: States That Elect Judges Are Approaching ‘Code Red’

corrupt justiceThe record-breaking, $16.5 million Pennsylvania Supreme Court election this month is no aberration, Scott Greytak of Justice at Stake writes for the blog of The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System. 

“Its sky-high spending, ad war among special interests, and dominance by candidates who spent the most all fit into a pattern. This grim picture threatens the evenhanded justice that our Constitution promises, and raises troubling questions about whether justice is indeed for sale,” writes Greytak.

He then compares what happened in Pennsylvania with themes of the previous election cycle as documented in Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14. Greytak, JAS policy counsel and research analyst, was lead author of the report, coauthored with The Brennan Center for Justice and National Institute on Money in State Politics. Read more

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Bloomberg Cites JAS on Spending ‘Arms Race’ in Judicial Elections

Screen-Shot-2015-10-29-at-12.24.23-PMIn state judicial elections, outside spending seems to “approaching a tipping point,” Justice at Stake’s Scott Greytak told Bloomberg BNA’s Big Law Business for its lengthy article about judicial elections. “It’s on a path where the majority of spending could soon be from the outside.”

“It’s essentially created an arms race situation,” added Greytak, JAS policy counsel and research analyst, and lead author of the recently released Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14. “It’s a high-stakes fight for the ideological composition of these courts.”

In “The Outside Influence of State Judicial Elections,” Bloomberg BNA reported on a record level of outside spending detailed in the past judicial election cycle. It delved into issues raised by a high-spending Illinois Supreme Court retention election in 2014 and then fast-forwarded to this month in Pennsylvania, where a state Supreme Court election set a national spending record at more than $16.5 million. Read more

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Court Races Have Big Stakes, Column Says, Citing Justice at Stake

Gavel_and_moneyIn the Sacramento Bee, a commentary by editorial page editor Dan Morain highlights the big stakes at play in state judicial elections, and reports $90.1 million has been spent to shape state supreme court elections since 2011, according to Justice at Stake.

Tracing the work of a Sacramento political consultant who has advised clients in some state Supreme Court retention elections, Morain connects the dots between the Florida Supreme Court striking down parts of a Republican-drawn redistricting plan in Florida, and its ruling having resulted in a more Democrat-friendly district where former Gov. Charles Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat, is running for the U.S. House.

The consultant worked for Defend Justice from Politics, a group that urged Florida voters in 2012 to retain three justices who were targeted for removal from the court (for background, see Gavel Grab). The justices were retained, and ultimately were part of the court handing down the redistricting decision.

The Crist candidacy, Morain writes, “provides a lesson in why the makeup of a state supreme court 3,000 miles away matters … and on the threat posed to democracy by attempts often orchestrated by partisan conservatives to unseat justices Read more

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Liz Seaton in National Law Journal: Missouri Plan Still Strong

MO PlanSeventy-five years after its establishment as America’s original  judicial merit selection system, the Missouri Plan is going strong and setting a national example, according to an op-ed by Justice at Stake Interim Executive Director Liz Seaton.  The piece, published in the National Law Journal, marked the anniversary of the plan’s creation earlier this month.

Citing the “deluge of special-interest cash flooding into” contested judicial elections, Seaton notes that the “strongest established check against these threats is a method of choosing ­judges called ‘merit selection.’ It’s modeled after the Missouri Nonpartisan Court Plan, approved in November 1940 by voters seeking selection of impartial, qualified judges who would be faithful to the rule of law.”

In the years since 1940, two dozen other states have adopted versions of the successful Missouri Plan for their highest courts.  Meanwhile, evidence has grown regarding “unintended harms of contested judicial elections, harms that go deeper than just the growing importance of cash in these races,” according to Seaton.  These include negative effects on diversity on the bench, as well as serious concerns about the fairness of criminal proceedings in state courts when judges in contested elections must run as “tough on crime.” Read more

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Column Commends OH Judicial Candidate Website, Cites JAS

In commending a new website that profiles candidates for judgeships in Ohio, Thomas Suddes of Northeast Media Group reprises the Ohio Supreme Court election of 2014, relying heaving on Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14.

While “some Ohioans may ignore judgeship elections,” Suddes writes, “Insiders don’t: They gave more than $1.1 million to the 2014 campaign of Republican Justice Judith L. French when she won a full Ohio Supreme Court term.” He notes that she ranked second in the nation during the past election cycle for big fundraising by a state Supreme Court candidate, according to Bankrolling the Bench, written by Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

You can learn more about the website, launched by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, from Gavel Grab.


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JAS, Partner, in Atlantic: When ‘Big Money’ Props up Harsh Sentences

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 12.04.02 PMWhen special interest groups channel big spending into judicial elections, including “tough-on-crime” ads aimed at exploiting public safety issues, it can harm impartial justice and public trust in our courts, Scott Greytak of Justice at Stake and Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice write in an Atlantic essay.

Their essay is headlined, “The Big Money Propping Up Harsh Sentences: Special-interest groups are funneling millions of dollars into state-court elections, taking a toll on justice and public confidence in judges.” It is drawn in part from the recent report they co-authored, Bankrolling the Bench: The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2013-14. The Atlantic article goes further to cite record-breaking spending in the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court election, and new research about special interest spending:

“Of the 18 organizations that ran criminal-justice-themed ads in state supreme court elections from 2011 to 2014, only three have positions on the issue listed on their websites. Instead, many groups focus on taxes, the size of government, tort reform, or other business interests.”

Read more

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Economist Article on ‘Courting Cash’ Cites Justice at Stake

The London-based Economist quotes Justice at Stake in chronicling the most expensive judicial election in U.S. history — recently concluded in Pennsylvania — and in questioning its implications.

The-Economist“COURTS, in theory, are bastions of independence and impartiality. But that image is tainted when campaigns pass the hat for contributions, or benefit from spending by others,” the Economist says in introducing data about the $16.5 million election for three seats on the state’s Supreme Court. The article goes on:

“Massive campaign spending in judges’ elections, according to Liz Seaton, interim head of the campaign group Justice at Stake, ‘is a giant and growing storm that threatens justice’. The candidate amassing the largest war-chest wins more than 90% of contested state Supreme Court races, she has pointed out. Ms Seaton and other critics think the selection of judges should be taken out of the hands of the people and entrusted to panels of experts instead.”

Read more

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Has Pennsylvania Seen the ‘New Normal’ for Judicial Elections?

law-cash-21816475It’s getting harder to distinguish between Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court elections and its elections for legislative and executive office, a political analyst suggests in a Legal Intelligencer article.

“I think that we are seeing judicial elections start to more closely mirror legislative and executive elections in terms of their price tags and even some of the campaign tactics being used in terms of negative ads,” said political scientist Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College.

He also noted about record high spending — more than $16.5 million (see Gavel Grab)– in the contest, “I think this is the new normal. As long as judges to the state Supreme Court are elected in a partisan manner, you are going to see characteristics of the races like campaign finance grow.” The article cited election spending data from Justice at Stake. Read more

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Closer Look at Merit Follows Pennsylvania’s Mudslinging Court Race

Capitol Building of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, PA, USA.In the wake of Pennsylvania’s record-breaking,  mudslinging Supreme Court race, more questions are being raised about whether it’s time for the state to move to merit selection for its appellate courts.

“There’s a lot to hate about judicial elections in Pennsylvania,” reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a story that cites Justice at Stake’s findings about record spending in 2015.  The report, headlined “Legislators rethink how Pennsylvania judges are elected,”  notes that state legislators are taking notice of the contentious race as they consider a switch to merit. Meanwhile, the Lehigh Valley Live news website noted the “obscene” amounts spent on the high court race and repeated its call for merit selection, inviting readers to comment.

The  news website also weighed in, publishing an editorial headlined “Low road to high court” and citing Justice at Stake’s findings on spending. The editors urged the state House to pass the merit selection bill endorsed on a bipartisan basis by the House Judiciary Committee last month.

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“Bankrolling the Bench,” PA Election Tell the Same Story

2000px-Seal_of_the_Supreme_Court_of_Pennsylvania.svgA story on the Moyers and Company news website  points to Bankrolling the Bench by JAS and partners and the record spending in Pennsylvania’s recent Supreme court race as mounting evidence of trouble with state judicial elections.

“If the judicial branch at the state level, as at the federal level, is meant to function as an impartial check on career politicians in the legislature and governor’s office, wouldn’t we also expect the individuals on the court to eschew partisan politics?” the piece asks. “But the system in many states incentivizes the opposite, and even allows special interests who may soon have business before the court to donate to judicial candidates, forming super PACs and dark money organizations to fund campaigns and advertising, much of it TV spots attacking the opposition.”

Pennsylvania’s 2015 state Supreme Court election featured the highest amount of documented spending in U.S. history, at over $16.5 million (see Gavel Grab).

Meanwhile, the Moyers story notes that there may be a “silver lining” for Pennsylvania, in that “this election was so nasty, change might be on its way.” It notes that legislation to replace contested elections with merit selection for the state’s appellate courts advanced with bipartisan support in the state’s House Judiciary Committee  in October.  Justice at Stake partner organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has been a driving force behind the progress of the reform measure.

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