Gavel Grab

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Brandenburg’s Role in Building Justice at Stake is Saluted

unnamed-5Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg will step down this month after having helped make JAS “one of the most visible groups opposing the politicization of judicial seats,” the Legal Times reported.

“What was most exciting and I’m proudest of was helping build a movement from scratch and put a new issue on the map of the American political landscape,” Brandenburg told Legal Times about his 14 years at JAS. “We’re moving towards an enough-is-enough movement. I think getting cash out of the courtroom is the fastest growing democracy issue right now.” He will become president of Appleseed, a national network of public interest law centers (see Gavel Grab).

Regarding victories won by defenders of fair courts, Brandenburg said nonetheless, “[T]he money isn’t going away by itself. If the billionaires’ caucus decides to jump into court races with both feet, we’re in real trouble. We saw signs in the last two elections that they’re dabbling.” Read more

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JAS in Washington Post: Focus on Quality of Judges, Not Politics

Washington PostWhen politics trumps qualifications in selecting our judges, it’s a threat to democracy, Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg wrote in a Washington Post letter to the editor.

Brandenburg was alluding to an episode in Virginia. There, a political spat threatens to force Justice Jane Marum Roush off the bench just weeks after she was appointed (see Gavel Grab for background). Brandenburg wrote:

“Judicial selection will never be sealed off from politics, but two dozen states use bipartisan merit-selection commissions to rigorously examine the qualifications of potential judges. Virginia would do well to look for ways to make judicial selection focus on quality, not politics. If our judges are pressured to become little more than politicians in black robes, it will undermine our democracy.”

Virginia is one of few states where the legislature may select judges.

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On Voting Rights, JAS Highlights Importance of Courts

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act, Justice at Stake pointed out the importance of fair and impartial courts in defining and protecting our voting rights. JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said:

“Ever since the fight for voting rights entered a new era with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, state and federal courts have become central to defining and protecting this right.  And state courts are increasingly called on to decide key voting rights cases including the constitutionality of state voter ID laws, redistricting proposals accused of being discriminatory, and other measures affecting voting rights.  With so much at stake, it is critical that these courts remain fair and impartial.  Justice at Stake is dedicated to reforms that will keep money, politics and partisan pressure out of the courts.”

JAS noted in a statement that as a pitched battle over voting rights promises more legal challenges will be heard in state courts, state judges and the campaigns they are forced to run are increasingly subject to political pressure and special interest group spending. (Since the 2010 elections, 22 states have enacted restrictions on voting, while laws to improve the voting process went into Read more

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OK Court Reaffirms Ruling: Ten Commandments Marker Must Go

cut4qtcThe Oklahoma Supreme Court has reaffirmed its earlier ruling that a granite Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol grounds must be removed, rejecting a request by the state for the court to reconsider its decision.  This sets the stage for the marker to come down within a few weeks, according to the Oklahoman.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt had requested a rehearing, maintaining that the court “got it wrong.” But justices ruled 7-2 to deny the rehearing request.  According to the Oklahoman, the court determined that “The monument violates a section of the Oklahoma Constitution prohibiting state property from being used to further religions.”

The court’s original decision on June 30 sparked impeachment threats against the seven justices who ruled that the monument must come down (see Gavel Grab).  “This latest threat by Oklahoma legislators to bully the state’s Supreme Court is deeply disturbing,” Justice at Stake Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton said at the time, in a statement published in the Tulsa World.  “When politicians threaten to remove judges from office for a single ruling, it strikes at the heart of the checks and balances system embedded in our democracy.”

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In Op-Ed, JASC Blasts Cruz’s Court Proposal

Bert Brandenburg

Bert Brandenburg

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s proposal to force U.S. Supreme Court justices to run in retention elections (see Gavel Grab) is “monumentally silly,” says Justice at Stake Campaign Executive Director Bert Brandenburg in a National Law Journal op-ed (available with free online log-in or through Google search).

Cruz’s proposal to amend the constitution to require periodic retention elections for the justices follows recent SCOTUS rulings on healthcare and marriage that have riled conservative critics.  The idea is fraught with both practical and ethical challenges, notes Brandenburg.

“If sending Antonin Scalia or Ruth Bader Ginsburg out on the campaign trail sounds like a Saturday Night Live skit, it’s because it would turn more than 225 years of American constitutional culture on its head,” he writes. “Our founders — who knew something about popular sovereignty — consciously avoided electing judges because they wanted courts’ rulings to be based on the law and the constitution, not political pressure.”

Cruz joins other presidential candidates who have called for term limits and other restraints on the Supreme Court in the wake of recent controversial rulings.  He has also said he will make reform of the court a central plank in his campaign platform.

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Ex-Chief Justice Cobb Urges Merit Selection Nationwide

Former Chief Justice Cobb of Alabama

Former Chief Justice Cobb
of Alabama

Former Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb of Alabama, where appellate judges are chosen in partisan elections, called on Friday for all 50 states to use a system of judicial selection that ensures fair and impartial courts, and she said merit selection is the best approach.

“I truly believe that what we need is a transparent, diverse, merit selection committee established in every single state,” she said to applause in a keynote address at Justice at Stake’s 2015 Fair Courts State Summit. These committees would be “well balanced, have lay people as well as lawyers, have Democrats, Republicans, and Independents,” and diversity in geography and “every other category,” she said, and they would screen interested candidates and make recommendations of those who are most qualified. Read more

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Oklahoma News Media Cite JAS on Judicial Impeachment Threat

Ten Commandments RebuildingA firestorm has followed the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling that a Ten Commandments marker is unconstitutional and must be removed from the state Capitol grounds. “A politician in this country needs to wage war against the judiciary,” thundered FOX News contributor Eric Erickson. A state legislator said the high court could be reduced to one judge or its funding halved, the Edmond Sun reported. Politicians’ threats of impeaching the seven justices continued.

Amid the furor, the Tulsa World quoted Justice at Stake Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton about the dangers of impeachment threats. “This latest threat by Oklahoma legislators to bully the state’s Supreme Court is deeply disturbing,” she said (see Gavel Grab). “When politicians threaten to remove judges from office for a single ruling, it strikes at the heart of the checks and balances system embedded in our democracy.” Read more

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Justice at Stake: Threat to ‘Bully’ Oklahoma High Court is Troubling

Oklahoma flag“The latest threat by Oklahoma legislators to bully the state’s Supreme Court is deeply disturbing,” Justice at Stake Deputy Executive Director Liz Seaton said on Wednesday after several legislators had voiced support for the impeachment of seven justices.

“When politicians threaten to remove judges from office for a single ruling, it strikes at the heart of the checks and balances system embedded in our democracy. Judges and justices must be permitted to rule fairly and impartially, in accordance with the facts and the law, without political interference or intimidation. Otherwise none of us will be assured of our fair day in court, as judges will be stripped of their ability to fulfill their essential role in protecting all our rights under law.”

On Tuesday, a small group of state legislators announced their intent to pursue impeachment proceedings against those Oklahoma Supreme Court justices who comprised the majority in declaring that a granite Ten Commandments marker must be removed from the state Capitol grounds. Read more

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JAS: Marriage Ruling Shows Need to Protect Impartial Courts

Justice at Stake, remarking on the numerous attacks on courts that preceded the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling on Friday, called the 5-4 decision “a vivid illustration of the central role of courts in our society and democracy” and a reminder of the importance of protecting impartial courts.

The ruling legalized marriage for same-sex couples nationwide (see Gavel Grab.) Here is the statement by Bert Brandenburg, JAS Executive Director:

“Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding marriage rights for same-sex couples, is a vivid illustration of the central role of courts in our society and democracy – and a reminder of how vigilantly their independence and impartiality must be protected.  As the issue of marriage rights has progressed through the courts, we have seen numerous calls for impeachment of judges and punitive measures designed to strip courts of their authority.  Today’s decision will come under fire as well, especially since we are entering a heated political season.  But we must always bear in mind that courts are not beholden to politicians or public sentiment, only to the law and the constitution.”

Read more

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JAS Cited on How Might Merit Selection Might Help in Pennsylvania

GavelImage_0_0As Pennsylvania legislators consider a new bill to do away with elections of appellate judges and replace them with merit selection, NewsWorks has quoted Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg about how merit systems can help.

Merit selection “has worked well in a couple dozen states for awhile now. It most of the time has reduced the political mischief and the kind of big money Pennsylvania has seen,” Brandenburg said, according to NewsWorks, the online home of WHYY news in Philadelphia. 

Commission members have largely succeeded in focusing on quality in vetting judicial candidates, he said. “[Members] may have their own political background, but they tend to check it at the door. It’s very important for any commission to establish a culture where that happens. In Arizona, for example … they actually broadcast the proceedings on the Internet, people can watch and see that people actually are checking their politics.” Brandenburg added, “In the end, that’s what you want — a quality judge, appointed without political games, and a commission that’s properly diverse and properly transparent.” Read more

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