USA Today: Liberties Protections Broke Down

USA Today conducted an investigation into the oversight of civil liberties at the federal level during the Bush administration.

The three agencies under the most scrutiny were the Departments of Defense, State and Health and Human services.  According to the investigation, all three failed to meet a legal requirement  to appoint civil liberties protection officers.  They also did not meet legal standards for regular reports to Congress on the effectiveness of their programs to secure civil liberties for the American public.

At the center of the report is the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent commission created in 2006  to ensure civil-liberties compliance.  As of today, the board has no members.

Caroline Fredrickson, legislative director at the ACLU, said that civil liberties violations such as erroneously placing people on the terrorist watch list and misusing administrative warrants “might have been dealt with much sooner if we had … cops on the beat to make sure there are standards that are being upheld.”

Caperton Inspires Call for End to Pa. Elections

As Pennsylvania gets ready for a state Supreme Court election in November 2009, a Scranton Times-Tribune editorial has cited the Caperton v. Massey case, and the West Virginia election that led to it, as a reason that  “Pennsylvania should switch to a system of merit selection appointments for appellate judges.”

With the cost of state judicial elections rising (nearly $9.5 million in 2007, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics), and six statewide Supreme Court and appellate seats on the ballot, Caperton serves as a “cautionary tale,” the editorial said. The case, described in numerous Gavel Grab postings, involves a West Virginia justice who refused to recuse himself from a case involviing a coal executive who spent $3 million to elect him.

The editorial added:

“For courts to be effective, citizens must believe that judges truly are independent. Funding appellate campaigns through private contributions, from parties with inherent interests in litigation, works against establishing and sustaining confidence.”

For more information on efforts to advocate merit selection in Pennsylvania, see Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. For more on Caperton v. Massey, see the Brennan Center for Justice Caperton resource page.

Update: In another development involving Caperton v. Massey, an Associated Press article reports that Justice Brent D. Benjamin will hear another appeal involving Massey Energy Corp. The West Virginia Supreme Court will hear arguments in April on a lower-court decision that allows the company to build a silo near a local elementary school. 

Wisconsin Legislators Pursue Campaign Reform

Three  legislators in Wisconsin, where Supreme Court elections have become more expensive and much nastier in recent years, are actively pushing campaign finance reform, an article in the Leader-Telegram reports.

In response to the disturbing rise of third-party influence on judicial elections, the Issue Ad Disclosure Bill would  make special interest advertising more transparent to the public, by requiring groups running campaign-season ads to reveal their contributors and the amount spent on their campaigns.

As one sponsor, State Representative Kristen Dexter, says in the article, the purpose of the bill is “‘to protect the rights of voters to know who is trying to influence them and how much they are willing to spend to buy that influence.’”

A second measure, the Impartial Justice Bill,   would publicly fund state Supreme Court campaigns in hopes of reducing  special interest campaign contributions.  A related Leader-Telegram editorial said that “while [these two bills] may not drain the [political] swamp completely, hopefully they will make it a bit less treacherous.”

While some  Republicans are skeptical, the two parties seem to agree that disclosure from special interest groups should be required. In 2007, outside groups spent $4.8 million on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court election, compared with about $1.2 million by the official campaigns.

The other strategy, public financing for Supreme Court elections, is used in North Carolina and New Mexico.  In North Carolina, the percentage of special interest contributions to Supreme Court candidates fell dramatically, from 73% to 14%, when the system started in 2004. Thus, these two bills would seem to be a step in the right direction for Wisconsin.

For more information on Wisconsin campaign spending, you can read this Gavel Grab post.

Further suggestions of campaign reforms can be found in “The New Politics of Judicial Elections: 2000” and “The New Politics of Judicial Elections: 2002.” You can find more details concerning the North Carolina public finance system in this JAS press release.

Caperton Judge Decries Politics in Courts

Brent BenjaminWest Virginia Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin, the judge at the center of the Caperton v. Massey recusal case, has told a TV program that “I don’t think that politics has any business in the administration of justice.”

As reported in a Legal Newsline article, Benjamin further told “Decision Makers,” a West Virginia television news show:

“Money and politics have been a problem, or have been perceived as a problem, since the very beginning… but certainly it is an issue that we need to address here. Obviously, we’re on hold right now.

“In my race, we had independent expenditure groups, groups that operate outside the candidates. The candidates have no control whatsoever about what these groups do or who they are. And sometimes for the candidates it is difficult because people perceive they do have some input when they don’t.”

Benjamin cast the deciding vote to overturn a $50 million judgment against Massey Energy Corp., after company CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million on an independent campaign to elect Benjamin. On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether Benjamin had a constitutional obligation to recuse himself from the case.

Video of Benjamin’s interview can be seen by clicking here.

To learn more about Caperton v. Massey, see these earlier Gavel Grab postings, or visit the Brennan Center for Justice Caperton resource page.

Colorado Institute Joins JAS Campaign

Justice at Stake is delighted to welcome the Colorado Judicial Institute as a member of our national campaign partnership on behalf of fair, impartial courts.

CJI is one of the nation’s leading citizen organizations working to help courts through education and advocacy. It played a leading role in Colorado’s adoption of public judicial performance evaluations, which  inform voters about judges facing  retention elections. CJI also has helped spearhead the “Our Courts” program, in which judges speak directly to the public to build knowledge of, and trust in, state and federal courts.

As noted on Justice at Stake’s partners page:

The mission of the Colorado Judicial Institute (CJI), a non-profit, non-partisan citizens’ organization founded in 1979, is to preserve and enhance the independence and excellence of Colorado courts, to further public understanding of the Colorado judicial system, and to ensure that the courts meet the needs of the people.

In order to achieve CJI’s broad mission, the organization takes on varied projects, such as: recognition of judicial excellence, raising private funds for continuing judicial education, public education on the state and federal courts through the Our Courts program, participation on commissions and committees to improve judicial selection and evaluation methods, research and publication in areas of family law, such as delinquency and neglect and foster care, and developing partnerships with national and state-based organizations. CJI is sustained through the support of individual and corporate members as well as grant funding for projects and programs.

To learn more about the institute, you can visit CJI’s web page.

AJS Study Sheds New Light on Election vs. Selection

A new survey commissioned by the American Judicature Society shows significant support for nonpartisan judicial appointments in Washington state, over the current election system. Of equal significance, the in-depth survey does much to explain contradictory poll findings on whether Americans prefer to elect judges or have them appointed.

An AJS press release contains a link to a detailed report on the survey, by Washington State University Professors David Brody and Nicholas Lovrich.

As in most surveys, a solid majority prefer electing judges, when the question is asked in a vacuum. According to poll data, 68 percent like nonpartisan elections, the system now used in Washington, with only 9 percent opposed. And 64 percent view contested elections for judges positively, with only 14 percent opposed – again when the question is posed in a vacuum.

What Washington voters don’t like is virtually any of the baggage that comes with their election system as it actually plays out. By large margins, they dislike the impact of special interest adverstising, candidates for the bench having to raise campaign money, and the fact that judges seeking reelection often are uncontested.

Noting that in 2008, only 16 percent of all incumbent judges were opposed, meaning that 84 percent were automatically reelected without challenge, Brody said:

“Essentially, we have an election system with very few elections. In a state with populist traditions, a system of selecting judges which largely prevents citizen input was predictably viewed as being undesirable.”

When voters were given detailed descriptions of two alternatives – nonpartisan elections as they are conducted in Washington, versus a nonpartisan system (more…)

New Turn in Ohio: No 'R' or 'D' on Judicial Ballots

In a story that we have followed here at Gavel Grab, the Ohio Supreme Court has changed course, and will continue to bar  judicial candidates from declaring their political party during general elections. The decision came less than a month after the state Supreme Court revised the Ohio Judicial Code of Conduct to allow party labels on the ballot.

According to the Metro Blog of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the original decision to end the ban  came after a 19-member task force, responsible for aligning the Ohio Judicial Conduct Code with the 2008 ABA Model Code Revision, recommended this change.

A shroud of secrecy surrounds the court’s decision. According to the Plain Dealer:

Court spokesman Chris Davey on Tuesday said the court will not explain to the public why it held the secret deliberations after initially welcoming public input. He insisted the court did not bow to “any external communication.”

It is worth noting that this provision only affects the general election. Ohio judicial candidates must run in party-conducted  primary elections to be chosen for the general election ballot.