Movement in Confirming Federal Judge Nominees?

Is there a thaw in the federal judicial nominations freeze?

Possibly, suggests a Thomson Reuters News & Insight article entitled “Here come the judges: at last, some relief for federal courts.” Here are three recent indicators it cites in analyzing whether the backlog of federal judicial nominations may be declining:

  • President Obama has submitted 36 new district and appellate court nominations in the first five months of 2011, compared with 103 in his previous two years in office combined.
  • The Senate has voted to confirm 24 appellate and district court judges so far in 2011, compared to 13 in the corresponding period last year.
  • In May the Senate has taken action on three of the most controversial and long-stalled nominees.

To learn more about Obama’s record on judicial nominations, check out Gavel Grab.

For State Courts, Budget Cuts are 'Crippling'

As an American Bar Association task force prepared for another hearing on the funding crisis facing state courts, a seasoned observer explained why cutting budgets for courts is different than for executive branch state agencies.

Tony Mauro of the National Law Journal wrote the following about state courts in a USA Today commentary entitled “Budget cuts are crippling our nation’s courts:”

“They are not run-of-the-mill state agencies that could use a haircut. They protect constitutional rights and freedoms enshrined not only in the Sixth Amendment but also the Seventh, which guarantees the right to civil trials — disputes over contracts and property, divorce and custody, among other matters.”

Mauro listed actions that states have taken to cope with funding shortfalls, including intermittent closing of the courtroom doors in Georgia, and asking vendors to provide free pens and pencils; and the possibility of canceled weekend arraignments in New York. Some of these have drawn mention in earlier Gavel Grab posts.

“Our courts today resemble a dying tree that you prop up in your front yard so that the landscaping looks OK,” he quoted  Oregon Chief Justice Paul De Muniz as saying. “But it’s a facade, because behind that are layoffs, furloughs and elimination of all kinds of services.” (more…)

Ban on Corporate Campaign Donations Struck Down

Drawing on the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, a federal judge in Virginia has ruled unconstitutional the U.S. campaign-finance law that prohibits corporations from making contributions to federal candidates.

Under Citizens United, corporations and individuals have the same rights to give money to campaigns, District Judge James Cacheris ruled, according to an Associated Press article. He dismissed a section of an indictment accusing two men of illegal reimbursements to donors to the Senate and presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton.

“(F)or better or worse, Citizens United held that there is no distinction between an individual and a corporation with respect to political speech,” Cacheris wrote in his opinion, the first of its kind. “Thus, if an individual can make direct contributions within (the law’s) limits, a corporation cannot be banned from doing the same thing.”

The landmark Supreme Court ruling lifted key restraints to allow unlimited political spending by corporations and labor unions, but it did not permit direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns.

Judge Cacheris’ ruling applies to companies in his district, based in Alexandria, Va., and it is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. (more…)

FL Governor Vetoes $400,000 Supreme Court Study

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (photo) has used his line-item veto power to cut $400,00 for studying a possible overhaul of the state Supreme Court. Scott slashed Thursday a record $615 million from Florida’s budget.

The court  study item was inserted into the budget during the late hours of the legislative session after a broad Supreme Court overhaul measure, to expand and then divide the court, failed to win support in the state Senate (see Gavel Grab).

The $400,000 study was criticized in some quarters as wasteful, a “folly,” and a thinly veiled and partisan attempt to lay the groundwork for another “split-and-stack” effort.

In his veto message, Scott spoke of conceptual support for a review, but he said that tough economic times mandated its veto:

“I support the Legislature’s concept of reviewing the efficiency and structure of the administration of the Supreme Court, the nominating commissions and the Judicial Qualifications Commission and the effectiveness of the judicial merit retention system. However, I believe that during these tough economic times, we cannot afford to spend $400,000 on this otherwise worthwhile review.” (more…)

WI Judge Voids Law Curbing Unions

A Dane County, Wisconsin judge voided Thursday a highly controversial state law that was pushed by Republicans to restrict collective bargaining rights for many public employees.

Judge Maryann Sumi (photo) said Republicans had not complied with the Wisconsin open meetings law when they hurried the legislation through in March, when it was the subject of massive protests at the state Capitol, according to a Reuters article.

The fight to restrict collective bargaining rights for public workers, with Republican Gov. Scott Walker in the forefront, spilled over dramatically to the Wisconsin Supreme Court election held in April although that contest was officially nonpartisan. The closely divided state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case June 6.

There are a majority of conservative-leaning judges on the state high court, and one of them, Justice David Prosser, was recently declared the winner in the April 5 election after a recount was conducted (see Gavel Grab).

In a 33-page ruling, Judge Sumi she would overturn the law because Republican legislators on a committee had violated  the state’s open meetings law in passing it March 9, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article reported. (more…)

Sanctions on Employers of Illegal Immigrants Upheld

The Supreme Court upheld on Thursday an Arizona law that sanctions employers for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, and it said such employers can lose their license to do business.

The 5-3 opinion represented a defeat for some civil rights groups who brought the challenge along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and for the Obama administration, according to a Los Angeles Times article. This coalition contended that under federal law,  states are not allowed to impose “civil or criminal sanctions” on employers.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who wrote the majority opinion, said the challenged Arizona law was similar to ones enacted recently by Colorado, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, according to a New York Times report.

Roberts wrote that part of federal law clearly permits states to penalize employers by using their “licensing” statutes. In the decision, Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, he was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Dissenting, with the view that states are barred by federal law from setting immigration-related mandates on businesses, were Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan stepped aside from participating in the case. The former U.S. solicitor general has recused herself from hearing a number of matters where she had some involvement in a case in lower courts.

Critics said the Arizona law amounted to a “business death penalty” (see Gavel Grab).

The ruling did not involve a more controversial Arizona immigration law that would allow local police a larger role in arresting people whom they suspect came illegally to the United States.

IN Protesters Target Supreme Court Justice

At a protest rally over a controversial Indiana Supreme Court opinion, one protester’s placard assailed as “Enemy of the Constitution” the judge who wrote the decision.

In addition there were calls by some protesters to deny Justice Steven David election to a term on the court when he is slated for a retention (up-or-down) vote in November 2012, according to a Fort Wayne Journal Gazette article. News media reports estimated the protestors at 200 or higher.

In the recent 3-2 ruling, the high court said citizens do not have a legal right to resist unlawful police entry into their homes (see Gavel Grab).

Kathryn Dolan, spokeswoman for the Indiana Supreme Court, was quoted by NW Indiana Times as saying, “The Supreme Court hands down about 100 opinions each year and all of the issues in those cases are carefully considered. We hope that the discussion surrounding this one opinion helps to shine light on the work of the court.”

Some critics are putting together mailing lists  to mobilize an ouster campaign  when Justice David, the court’s newest member, faces a  retention vote in 2012, according to a WIBC report that was headlined, “Protestors Seek Supreme Court Justice’s Ouster.” (more…)

TX Judicial Candidate Makes Unusual Pledge

A courtroom lawyer who announced his candidacy in a Republican primary for a Texas judgeship vowed not to solicit or accept campaign cash from attorneys who might appear before him as a judge.

“The custom of judicial candidates raising money from lawyers that might practice before them creates the potential appearance of bias, and that is simply incompatible with being a judge,” said Bill Old (photo) in announcing his candidacy for judge of the 25th Judicial District, according to a Colorado County (Tx.) Citizen article.

In taking what the news article called an “unusual step,” Old also called potential rivals to follow his lead about campaign contributions from lawyers. The Republican primary will be held in March 2012.

Goodwin Liu Withdraws Judicial Nomination

Legal scholar Goodwin Liu has withdrawn his nomination to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, following Senate Republicans’ successful effort last week to block an up-or-down floor vote (see Gavel Grab).

“Goodwin Liu would have brought extraordinary credentials, great intellect, and an inspirational life story to the bench,” Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the White House, was quoted by Politico as saying.

“We remain disappointed he was not confirmed by the United States Senate but are confident he has a brilliant future. This administration will continue to work diligently to nominate judicial candidates from diverse backgrounds with mainstream views who respect the rule of law.”

When Senate Democrats could not muster enough votes to force an up-or-down vote on Liu’s nomination, it represented the first successful filibuster of a judicial nomination since 2005. Liu, 40 and a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, was scorched by some conservatives over what they considered extremist liberal views, although some other conservatives spoke out in his support.

“In light of last week’s unsuccessful cloture vote … I respectfully ask that you withdraw my nomination from further consideration by the United States Senate,” Liu wrote in a letter to President Obama. “With no possibility of an up-or-down vote on the horizon, my family and I have decided that it is time for us to regain the ability to make plans for the future.” (more…)

Suspect in AZ Shootings Found Unfit for Trial

Jared Loughner, accused in an Arizona shooting spree that killed a federal judge and wounded a congresswoman, was found Wednesday not mentally competent to stand trial.

Judge Larry A. Burns of Federal District Court made the ruling, according to a New York Times article, and Loughner will be held in a pyschiatric facility as a result.

Six people, including Judge John Roll, were killed in the January rampage and 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, were injured (see Gavel Grab).