Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Justice at Stake' Category

JAS Welcomes Court Ruling on Campaign Contribution Limits

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on Tuesday a lower-court order that struck down campaign contribution limits in Montana, and Justice at Stake applauded “a victory for fair and impartial courts and the people of Montana.”

jas_logoThe three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit remanded the case of Lair v. Bullock back to the lower court, finding that the lower court had not used the correct standard of review in its initial ruling. The ruling on Tuesday keeps in place campaign contribution limits set by Montana, which apply to elections including state judicial elections.

JAS Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton said in a statement, “These limits provide essential protections in our justice system when judges are elected. It is important to prevent the kind of outsized donations by a single lawyer, group or party that run the risk of influencing courtroom decisions.” Read more

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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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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.”

Read more

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TV Ad Buys Near $1.5 Million in Pennsylvania Court Primary

PennsylvaniaSupremeCourtTV ad buys in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court primary have reached almost $1.5 million, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice said in an analysis on Wednesday.

With the primary just a week away and 12 candidates competing for nominations for three seats on the court, the groups said it is likely that this year’s election cycle will be among the most expensive in Pennsylvania history. Seven candidates have purchased TV air time so far.

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has become a national story after years of scandals that have hurt the public’s trust in the high court,” said JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “Pennsylvanians deserve fair and impartial courts that aren’t influenced by money and special interests, and it’s disturbing that nearly $1.5 million dollars have already been poured into television advertising ahead of a primary.” Read more

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JAS: WI Court Awash in Politics, and It Could Happen Elsewhere

Bert Brandenburg

Bert Brandenburg

Wisconsin’s courts have been dragged into the “take-no-prisoners feud” of partisan political brawling in the state and nation, and their impartiality is gravely threatened, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg says in a National Law Journal essay.

Brandenburg recaps the “hardball, party-line ploy engineered by Republicans” that won voter approval last month of a constitutional amendment changing how the chief justice is selected (see Gavel Grab). “The referendum campaign,” he writes, “was bankrolled by $600,000 from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which has spent millions over the past decade in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court ­elections, fueling an arms race that is turning judges into fundraisers and leaving the public to fear that justice is for sale.”

He recounts high-spending battles for Wisconsin Supreme Court seats, questions as to whether the justices should recuse in a case involving campaign spenders, and tensions among justices that have boiled over and brought national attention to feuding on the court. Brandenburg concludes by warning that what has happened in Wisconsin ought not be considered unique:

“Wisconsin’s courts may feel caught in a perfect storm of politics, or perhaps the casualty of a blood feud for political power. But every one of the 22 states that elects their high court justices should know that their turn is coming. In the 21st century, hardball politics, acrimony and shaken faith in our courts are the bitter and inescapable harvest of judicial elections are that are pressuring our judges to become politicians in black robes.”

The essay is headlined, “Op-Ed: Wisconsin Judiciary is Awash in Politics.” It is accessible through a Google search.

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Florida Supreme Court Justice Applauds Yulee Decision

pariente0807In an interview on the public radio show The Takeaway, Florida Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente talks about the Supreme Court’s decision in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar and the problem of money in judicial elections.

The decision, which The Takeaway characterized as a “quiet little ruling that shocked the world of campaign finance,” upheld Florida’s ban on personal campaign solicitations by judges and judicial candidates.  Justice Pariente called it an “important recognition of the difference” between the two political branches of government and the judicial branch.

Justice Pariente also talked about the serious problem of dark money in judicial elections, in which shadowy groups spend to put judges on the bench in hopes of advancing a political agenda.  She mentioned Justice at Stake among groups that are working toward a resolution of this problem, by advocating for reforms such as merit selection of judges.

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