Gavel Grab

Archive for the 'Merit Selection' Category

Majority of Kansans Favor Current Merit Selection of SC Justices

Justice at Stake released new polling data today that shows the majority of Kansans favor the current merit-based system for choosing state Supreme Court justices.

Key findings of the new poll of 898 likely voters shows: 

  • A whopping 76 percent oppose moving to a federal-style system, like the system recently pushed through the legislature for the court of appeals, for the state Supreme Court. Only 14 percent support such a move. Opposition to this proposal has increased since Justice at Stake first asked the question in January 2013, when 61% of voters rejected such a constitutional change.
  • Only 31 percent support amending the constitution to provide for contested elections for Supreme Court justices and only 32 percent support increasing the vote required in order for justices to retain their seats to 67 percent.

Meanwhile, an opinion piece in The Garden City Telegram argues that attempts to change the selection process are a power grab by Gov. Sam Brownback who is unhappy with recent school finance rulings.

“…Kansans should be appalled by the governor’s disregard for an independent judiciary, separation of powers and checks and balances.”

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KS Supreme Court Chief Justice Advocates for Merit Selection

Chief Justice Nuss

Chief Justice Nuss

Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Lawton Nuss cites a former Texas Chief Justice in his argument for keeping the merit selection system for Kansas Supreme Court judges.

In an op-ed in The Wichita Eagle, Nuss notes that the Kansas legislative and executive branches have expresses admiration for many things “Texan,” which might have something to do with the attempts to eliminate merit selection.

Chief Justice Nuss agrees with an opinion piece co-authored by former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who has “firsthand, conservative-credentialed, in-depth knowledge of elections for Supreme Court justices.”

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Ex-Justice Nelson Urges Switch to Merit Selection in Montana

Retired Justice Nelson

Retired Justice Nelson

With scathing criticism of Citizens United’s “destructive fallout” for elected state courts, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson is calling for a switch to merit selection of his state’s judges, before a “real train wreck” occurs.

In the February edition of Montana Lawyer, Justice Nelson writes a lengthy and detailed plea for a switch to merit selection, beginning with his own admission that for years he strongly supported electing Montana judges and justices. The impact of Citizens United and a $1.63 million contest for one Montana high court seat last year have helped make him a “true believer” to the contrary,  he says. His top critiques of Citizens United follow:

“First, Citizens United discourages qualified attorneys from running for judicial office. … Why would a qualified and experienced attorney choose to run for a judicial office that pays a fraction of that in the private sector; that requires the candidate to raise and spend a small fortune; and that demands the candidate, for months on end, subject herself or himself (along with their families) to a barrage of lies, misinformation and abuse from out-of-state organizations that know nothing — and care less — about the targeted candidate, Montana, its people or its Constitution and laws?

“Second, Citizens United actually encourages unqualified and inexperienced candidates to run. These types know that if they play to the out-of-state dark money folks; that if they promote the party or special interest agenda as their raison d’etre for running; and that if they mislead, dissemble and conceal their true selves, platform and motivation, then they will be able to count on the support and mega-bucks of the likes of the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Koch Brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

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Op-Ed: Glickman Throws His Weight Behind Merit Selection

Dan Glickman, KS

Dan Glickman

Dan Glickman, a former U.S. Representative from Kansas, issued a defense of merit selection of state Supreme Court justices. In a Wichita Eagle op-ed, Glickman said “the legal business climate of state courts,” ranked fifth by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is strengthened by merit selection.

Moreover, he says implementing the federal system for selecting justices “would consign Supreme Court appointments to closed door, backroom politics.” Political courts, he continues, have not been successful on any level:

“… [I]f Kansas political leaders considered the partisan breakdown in our nation’s capital, they might reconsider their embrace of a Washington-style system for choosing judges. And New Jersey, a state using the federal-style system for judicial nominations, experienced such partisan gridlock that a high number of vacant judgeships in the state’s busiest county forced the suspension of complex civil trials several years ago.”

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Kansas Panel Votes to End Merit Selection of High Court Judges

justice-scalesA state House committee has approved rival proposals to dump the merit-based selection of Kansas Supreme Court justices, yet questions linger as to whether either would command the two-thirds support needed to pass the full chamber.

One of the proposals would institute contested, partisan elections for the state’s highest court. The other would give the governor unilateral appointment authority, subject to confirmation by the state Senate, in a process similar to the Washington-style model of judicial selection.

Critics of the existing system contend it is undemocratic given that lawyers comprise a majority of members on the screening commission for court applicants, according to the Associated Press. The system’s defenders say the proposals would politicize judicial selection, and that Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies want to exert more control over choosing top judges. Read more

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Ex-Justice Sees ‘Crisis’ in Public Respect for Arkansas Judiciary

Former Justice Robert Brown, Arkansas

Former Justice Robert Brown, Arkansas

Arkansas judicial selection was a topic of debate last week, as a reform bill was filed in the state House and legal experts discussed some less sweeping reforms.

The Times Record explained that the bill, which would eliminate direct election of Supreme Court justices and institute a merit selection system, has not gained widespread support yet. According to the article, former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Robert Brown said both systems have “strengths and weaknesses,” but he prefers elections. Still, Brown says some reforms are needed to restore public faith in the judiciary.

“I think, frankly, we are undergoing a crisis as far as the judiciary and public respect for the judiciary,” Brown said.

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Experts Implore Kansans to Express Support for Merit Selection

Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler; Emporia, KS

Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler; Emporia, KS

As Kansas legislators debate changes to judicial selection, many legal experts are expressing their support for the current system (See Gavel Grab for background). Chief Judge Merlin Wheeler and Ken Buchele joined in the chorus Wednesday at an event held by the League of Women Voters, reported on by the Emporia Gazette.

Buchele, a former member of judicial nominating commissions, explained that one proposed change, partisan election of judges, may cause judges to show bias to campaign donors:

“If you were in a lawsuit with a large company and you thought you had been wronged in a situation and a lawsuit was filed, and you walked into a courtroom and the person sitting on the bench, the judge, had been elected by public election, the same way we elect on legislators and governor. And you knew that judge had had a very strong financial campaign gift from the guy that you are suing. Now what kind of situation would you feel that you were in?”

Both Judge Wheeler and Buchele encouraged people to reach out to their legislators, and embolden them to vote against all proposed changes. “They are in a tough position,” Buchele said. “They need a lot of support if they are going to buck the governor.”

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Merit System for Choosing Kansas Justices is Defended, Debated

Kansas_quarter,_reverse_side,_2005Defenders of Kansas’ existing system for the merit-based selection of state Supreme Court justices described it on Wednesday as a proven method for choosing an impartial court removed from political influence. Critics urged alternatives to make the court more accountable to the public.

The clash of views came at a Kansas House Judiciary Committee hearing on proposed constitutional amendments that would scrap a decades-old judicial nominating committee that screens candidates for the high court, then makes recommendations to the governor for appointment. One measure would give the governor direct appointment authority, subject to state Senate confirmation; another would shift to open elections for Kansas justices and for Court of Appeals judges. Read more

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Arkansas Legislature to Weigh Proposal for Merit Selection

arkansas_flag_web_fc1aA state legislator has proposed a constitutional amendment to switch from nonpartisan election of Arkansas Supreme Court justices to a merit-based selection system including a 15-member Judicial Nominating Commission.

TheCityWire.com reported on the proposal by Rep. Matthew Shepherd, a Republican and chairman of the state House Judiciary Committee. His proposal also would include retention (up-or-down) elections if a justice sought a new term on the court.

After an Arkansas Supreme Court election that saw outside spending surge last year, Brian Ratcliff, incoming president of the Arkansas Bar Association, warned that action was needed to preserve impartial state courts, and a merit-based system was one of his suggested reforms (see Gavel Grab).

Shepherd also introduced a merit-selection measure in 2013. To learn more about merit selection, see Justice at Stake’s web page.

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Editorial: Dump Partisan Elections from N.M. Hybrid System

state-flag-new-mexicoA proposal to eliminate partisan judicial elections from New Mexico’s hybrid system for choosing judges was endorsed by an Albuquerque Journal editorial as reducing the influence of campaign spending and partisan pressure:

“Neither money nor political party pressure should be a factor in New Mexico’s courtrooms. Lawmakers should pass this proposed constitutional amendment and let New Mexico voters decide if an influence-free way of selecting judges is what they want.”

Currently, a nonpartisan commission screens judicial applicants and makes recommendations to the governor for her appointment. If an appointed judge seeks a new term, he must run in a partisan election for it, but he need run only in a retention (up-or-down) election for subsequent terms. Read more

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