Gavel to Gavel Issue Released

The National Center for State Courts has just released its newest edition of Gavel to Gavel, a summary of legislation affecting state courts. This week’s online issue features:

  • Arkansas’ Senate approves a bill allowing County Judges to designate their successors in the case of their death or disability in an emergency.
  • Washington State considers transferring all licensing and disciplinary authority over attorneys held by the state bar to the Supreme Court, while South Carolina considers stripping that state’s Supreme Court of the power over attorney admission/discipline.
  • Alabama’s House Judiciary Committee advances a bill to increase the number of years a person must be admitted to the bar before becoming a judge.

To read this issue of Gavel to Gavel, click here. To see earlier editions, click here. And to see a new new searchable database for all Gavel to Gavel legislation, click here.

USA Today Column Eyes Caperton Issues

A terrific column by Tony Mauro, respected Supreme Court reporter for the Washington Legal Times, appears in USA Today’s online edition. It is titled, “Can Money Obstruct Justice?”

Mauro cites a recent poll by Justice at Stake and another by USA Today that show strong public belief that judges should not handle cases involving major campaign benefactors, and adds:

The noble promise engraved above the entrance to the Supreme Court is “Equal Justice Under Law.” It is not: “Justice Goes to the Highest Bidder.”

Yet that is what many Americans think is happening in their courts. With businesses and interest groups pouring more and more money into state judicial elections — more than $34 million for state supreme court races alone in 2006 — the public can’t be faulted for concluding that donors are getting what they pay for, namely favorable treatment from judges who are supposed to be impartial.

To see Tony’s column, click here.

New Yorker Examines a 'Hard' Detainee Case

A New Yorker magazine article, “The Hard Cases,” takes a close-up look at the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, an alleged enemy combatant held without charge in a Charleston, S.C., brig, and the difficult policy choices facing President Obama.

Al-Marri, whose criminal charges in the federal court system were dismissed in 2003 when al-Marri was declared an enemy combatant by President Bush, is at the center of a Supreme Court case on whether a president can order someone held indefinitely without charge in national security cases.

The article also looks at possible strategies, including a controversial proposal to create a national security court, that the new administration may employ in alleged terrorism cases.

To see other Gavel Grab items involving al-Marri, click here.

Study Finds Links Between Contributions, Judicial Decisions

A recent study found that campaign contributions can have a significant influence on decisions by state Supreme Court justices, an article in The National Law Journal reported.

After studying judicial elections in Michigan, Texas, and Nevada, political scientists Chris Bonneau of the University of Pittsburgh and Damon Cann of Utah State University determined that “campaign contributions appear to affect the outcome of cases in states where judges are elected in partisan contests — Michigan and Texas in the study — but not where they are elected on a nonpartisan ballot — Nevada.”

The authors noted that the sample of states was small and also said it is impossible to say that campaign contributions cause decisions, but in Michigan and Texas, the authors said they identified a “correlation.”

As the second largest group of contributors (behind business), attorneys were responsible for 21% of the donations made to candidates in 2005-2006.

Although the authors of the study accounted for other factors that might influence a judge’s decision, such as the details of the case and personal ideology, they tried to control for these aspects. Even so, the authors concluded that, in Michigan and Texas, “‘Dollars made a difference, whether a liberal was contributing to a liberal or a liberal [was] contributing to a conservative.’”

More disturbing was the fact that a contribution as small as $2,000 seemed to make substantially affect the ultimate decision of the judge. While the authors concede that this finding does not imply that attorneys need only contribute this sum of money to buy a ruling, they do note that,

‘[I]n an environment where numerous attorneys and law firms are making contributions, judges notice those who are contributing (more…)

links for 2009-02-24

Poll: Public Wants Firewall Between Judges, Election Backers

An overwhelming percentage of U.S. adults believes that judges cannot be completely impartial and should not participate in cases that involve large campaign contributors, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by Justice at Stake.  

The national poll, which was cited in a Charleston Gazette article, said that 81% of surveyed adults believe that judges also should not decide whether it is appropriate for them to take part in cases involving election supporters; instead, they said, another judge should determine if there is an appearance of bias.

These results are important on the eve of a Supreme Court case that will be heard  March 3. Caperton v. Massey is a recusal case in which Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent $3 million to help elect now-West Virginia Chief Justice Brent Benjamin. Benjamin then twice cast the deciding vote to overturn a $50 million lawsuit against the company. Despite repeated requests for recusal, Benjamin refused to step aside, stating that there was no proof of any actual bias on his part.

However, the adults surveyed in the Harris poll might argue otherwise. When (more…)

Extreme Makeover Urged for Supreme Court

As reported in today’s Washington Post, a group of legal scholars have penned a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the chairs and ranking minority members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, urging a series of reforms to the United States Supreme Court.

The letter claims that “excessive independence” of the judiciary has eroded public confidence:

“The increasing likeness of high courts to robed legislatures has, we believe, contributed to the growing unrest of citizens with the tradition and practice of judicial independence, an unrest to which Justices themselves point with concern. Congress and the Department of Justice should therefore attend to their duty to provide constructive ‘checks and balances’ to our highest Court to reassure the public that its great judicial power is being exercised with appropriate self-restraint and fidelity to law.”

Read more…