USA Today Cites JAS, Says Reform Efforts 'Growing'

The lead front-page story in today’s USA Today,  “States act to revise judicial selection,” focuses on efforts to protect elected courts from special-interest money, and includes quotes and data from Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Noting recent reform efforts in West Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada and Minnesota, reporter Fredreka Schouten wrote:

A growing number of states are rewriting their rules on selecting judges to curb the influence of special interests on judicial contests.

Thirty-nine states elect at least some of their judges, and judicial candidates for high courts raised $206.4 million for campaigns from 2000 through 2009, according to Justice at Stake, a non-partisan coalition that promotes impartial courts. That’s up from $83.3 million the previous decade.

Outside interests spent another $39.3 million on TV ads in judicial elections in the past 10 years, the group’s data show.

“It makes it look like justice is for sale,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy of The Brennan Center for Justice, which has pushed for changes in judicial elections.

The article also discusses the impact of Citizens United on reform efforts, quoting JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg, as saying that the controversial ruling, which allows corporations and unions to spend without limit on elections, “has given a lot of extra energy to reform efforts.”

The full USA Today story is here. To learn more, click on Gavel Grab stories about campaign finance laws, recusal reform, and judicial selection reform, or this JAS press release, hailing “national momentum” for court reforms. Or see Justice at Stake’s “Your State” national map.

W. Va. Law May Face Suit; AP Cites Justice at Stake

Opponents of campaign finance laws are rattling their legal sabers in West Virginia, suggesting in an Associated Press article that they may sue to overturn the state’s new public-financing law for state Supreme Court candidates. A similar challenge is being mounted against a Wisconsin’s law enacted last year.

The West Virginia law provides up to $550,000 to candidates who participate in the voluntary program, with additional “rescue” money available if a candidate’s opponents exceed a certain spending level.

The law was passed in part because of public revulsion over the state’s 2004 Supreme Court election, in which a coal executive spent $3 million to elect a new justice while his company appealed a $50 million jury award. According to the Center for Competitive Politics, public financing discriminates against candidates who choose not to take part, although the article doesn’t make clear exactly how.

As noted by Charles Hall, a Justice at Stake spokesman quoted in the article, a similar public financing law in North Carolina was unanimously upheld by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also oversees West Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal  that used similar grounds to those being cited by the Center for Competitive Politics.

“They’re trying to take a limited set of circumstances, and stretch it into a broad principle that overturns more than 30 years of federal court rulings,” Hall said. “They are a long way from the finish line.”

For the full article, click here. To learn more about public finance measures in West Virginia and Wisconsin, click here. To see a poll showing strong public support in West Virginia for public financing of Supreme Court elections,  click here.

Is a Supreme Confrontation Near?

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens hasn’t announced whether he will retire this year.

But that doesn’t matter in Washington, where an expected announcement has the White House, activists and the Senate “bracing for an election-year confrontation over the future of the Supreme Court,” according to a New York Times article. It went on to list names that have been mentioned (see Gavel Grab) as potentially on a short list of candidates.

The next high court nomination opportunity for President Obama will play out in a changed political setting from his last.

If Justice Stevens retires, the New York Times reported, his replacement “could secure the seat for the liberal faction for years. But not all liberals are alike. The president’s base hopes he will name a full-throated champion to counter Justice Antonin Scalia, the most forceful conservative on the bench.”

Given the president’s recent victory on health-care legislation, some advocates are hoping Obama will seize political momentum and take on picking a strong counterbalance to Justice Scalia.

Campaign Contribution Limits Shot Down

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that an independent political group can collect unlimited individual donations to spend on advertising for or against political candidates.

The ruling, following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, went further to loosen campaign finance restrictions.

The conservative group SpeechNow won a unanimous ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that “essentially expanded the bounds” of Citizens United, according to The Blog of Legal Times. Citizens United held that corporations can spend freely on political advertising.

At issue were limits of up to $5,000 a year placed on individual contributions to independent political advocacy groups such as SpeechNow. The court’s chief judge said the limits violated the First Amendment, Reuters reported.

“The SpeechNow ruling significantly broadens the impact of Citizens United, extending its constitutional reasoning from campaign spending to campaign donations,” wrote SCOTUSblog.

The latest ruling “represents a further weakening of campaign-finance laws and limits,” stated the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog. (more…)

KY Judge, Father Agree to Fines

In Kentucky, a father’s financial aid helped his daughter win election as a judge. Now each has agreed to pay a $15,000 fine to settle a campaign-finance case against them.

Louisville Metro Council member Jim King gave Katie King $135,000 during her successful campaign for a judgeship in 2008, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported. The state Registry of Election Finance found that the gifts violated campaign-finance laws. Learn more about the case from Gavel Grab. Jim King is running for mayor of Louisville.

Senate Panel Backs MN Reform Proposal

A committee in the Minnesota Senate has approved a bill asking voters if they want to change how state judges are selected.

A bipartisan group of reformers is supporting a proposed  constitutional amendment to replace partisan elections with up-or-down retention elections and to set up a non-partisan commission to evaluate judges near the ends of their terms.

Supporters want to shield judges from special-interest money and politics, according to a Minnesota Public Radio report. Others think the current system is working. To learn more about the Minnesota proposal, check out Gavel Grab. A Justice at Stake issues page has more information about appointment and retention systems.

Bopp Expands Legal Team in Far-Reaching Effort

Indiana-based lawyer James Bopp Jr.,  working nationwide to dismantle campaign finance regulation, is familiar to Gavel Grab readers (see earlier posts here.) Now an update on Bopp from the Washington Post provides details about his reach.

The lawyer who played a central role in framing the case that led to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has increased his team of lawyers to 15 and now has 27 cases in play in courts around the country.

Citizens United is going to have a very substantial impact,” Bopp told the Post. “Obviously, we’re encouraged that we’re on the road back to restoring the First Amendment application to campaign finance.”

Bopp is vice chairman of the Republican National Committee. His legal team is keeping tabs on efforts by states and Congress to respond to Citizens United, which allows corporations and labor unions to spend freely on independent advertising to support or oppose political candidates. (more…)