ACS Panel Debates Judicial Elections, Caperton

Judge James A. Wynn, JrAs part of its annual conference, the American Constitution Society on Saturday held a panel discussion on how the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Caperton v. Massey will affect judicial elections. According to a Washington Legal Times blog, the panel debated the pros and cons of various options, unable to reach a single solution.

Justice at Stake’s Bert Brandenburg provided the panel with statistical data, noting that “almost half of state judges agree that campaign cash is affecting the outcome of cases.”

But how much is too much? Former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Kourlis, who is executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, argued that merely asking that question implies that there is an amount that is acceptable, which she believes there is not. Kourlis advocates the use of nonpartisan nomination commissions to screen and submit potential court nominees. According to the Amerian Judicature Society, Colorado is one of 24 states to use this system, also known as merit selection.

That option was criticized by former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Harold See Jr., who said that public participation in the election of judges carries an important value.

Judge James Wynn Jr. of the North Carolina Supreme Court, who is a member of Justice at Stake’s board of directors, offered another option: public financing of judicial elections. This option would prevent interest groups from having a disproportionate influence on the election’s outcome, Wynn said.

Judge Jon Tigar of Alameda County Superior Court in California added that if donations are considered acceptable, then a solid limit on the amount of money donated needs to be established. The Supreme Court ruling did not include any set limit, saying instead that “disproportionate” influence by an individual donor with a case before a particular judge might create an unacceptable “probability of bias.”

To see the full ACS video see: ACS Judicial Election Panel

To learn more about the Caperton case, see these Gavel Grab entries, or visit Justice at Stake’s online Caperton resource page.

House Impeaches Federal Judge for Just 14th Time in History

Judge Kent

CNN reports that the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to impeach Fifth Circuit Judge Samuel Kent.

Kent has been the target of an unusually fast impeachment process since his obstruction of justice conviction last May in a case involving allegations of sexual assault from two of Kent’s female staffers.  In a plea deal, Kent agreed to plea guilty to obstruction of justice in exchange for dropping the sexual assault charges and was sentenced to 33 months in prison.

When Kent, in a letter to President Obama, announced his intention to wait a full year before resigning so that he could continue to receive salary and health benefits, the House Judiciary Committee acted quickly.  Just days after Kent made his intentions known, the Committee had formed a special impeachment task force, held hearings, and voted to recommend full impeachment proceedings to the full House.  None of the impeachment votes saw any nay votes, with a total of four impeachment articles being levied against Kent.

The proceedings will now move to the U.S. Senate.  If convicted, Kent, who is scheduled to begin serving his jail sentence on Monday, will lose his salary and benefits immediately.

Why Caperton Matters to 'All of Us'

Shira Goodman of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts writes a good entry at their “Choose Judges on Merit” blog on why the Caperton v. Massey case matters to average people.

She expands on a Philadelphia Inquirer article by PMC Chair Bob Heim, which includes the following anecdote from Heim’s op-ed:

Some years ago, I was told of a lawyer who was sitting with a client in court, waiting for a newly assigned judge to hear his case. When the judge appeared, the lawyer whispered to his client that he was concerned, because the opposing lawyer was on the judge’s campaign committee and had contributed to the campaign. After a pause, the client whispered back, “So why didn’t you contribute?”

To see Shira’s full entry, click here. To see Bob Heim’s Inquirer column, click here.

Immigration-Court Backlogs Growing, Report Says

The New York Times today reports on a recent study released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) that finds a major backlog in the nation’s immigration courts.

The report finds that, despite a 2006 Justice Department recommendation to hire more immigration judges, the courts have seen a 19 percent increase in backlogs and 23 percent increase in the time it takes to resolve cases over the last three years.  The recommendation, made by then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, has been largely ignored, with only four new judges since the recommendation was made.

“Promises were made and promises weren’t kept, and there is real hurt,” said David Burnham, one of the co-directors of TRAC.

In addition to a lack of judges, staff shortages are  contributing to the backlog.  The report found that, on average, each judge is sharing a law clerk with three other judges, a marked contrast from the standard staffing assignment of multiple clerks to a single judge.

With immigration caseloads reaching record numbers, and an increase in Immigration Customs and Enforcement raids, it is difficult to see how these backlogs can be trimmed without additional staff.

NY Times Cites Continuing Surveillance Threat

The  New York Times has published an editorial saying the U.S. government’s eavesdropping program continues to be too aggressive, and urged revisions in laws allowing anti-terrorism surveillance of U.S. citizens. Its conclusion:

We do not believe that Mr. Obama is deliberately violating Americans’ rights as Mr. Bush did, and it is to his credit that the government acknowledged part of the problem in April. But this nation’s civil liberties are not predicated on trusting individuals to wield their powers honorably. They are founded on laws.

The 2008 expansion of FISA is a deeply flawed law. Congress needs to repeal it and re-examine, carefully this time, what powers the government really needs to eavesdrop on Americans and what limits and safeguards need to be placed on those powers.

To learn more about issues relating to the the fight against terrorism and the U.S. court system, see Justice at Stake’s publication, “Courting Danger.” You can also see these earlier Gavel Grab postings.