Mikkanen's Judicial Nomination Sent Back to President Obama

Arvo Mikkanen’s name was sent back to President Obama after his nomination for a federal judgeship garnered serious opposition from Oklahoma’s senators and had little longterm support from the administration, reports NewsOK. He was one of eight judicial nominees returned to the White House by the Senate last weekend.

Mikkanen was nominated to serve as a federal judge on the Northern District Court of Oklahoma in Tulsa. He is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma; had his nomination been successful, Mikkanen would have been the only American Indian to be actively serving in the federal judiciary, and only the third known American Indian in history to serve in federal judicial branch.

Mikkanen’s resume includes 16 years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Oklahoma City and service on Interior Department courts for tribes without their own judicial systems. He is a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes and the current President of the Oklahoma Indian Bar Association. He was deemed qualified unanimously by the American Bar Association.

Mikkanen never received a Judiciary Committee hearing because of opposition from Sens. Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe, both Republicans. Neither senator was consulted by the administration before Obama announced Mikkanen’s nomination in February; Coburn called Mikkanen’s nomination “unacceptable,” but he did not elaborate.

NewsOK followed up its coverage of Mikkanen’s failed nomination with an editorial entitled, “Mystery surrounds rejection of Mikkanen judicial nomination.” It questions why Mikkanen’s nomination encountered such ardent and ambiguous resistance from Coburn and Inhofe. It compares Mikkanen’s experience and background to that of Judge Jerome Holmes, whose 2006 nomination to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was supported by both senators. The editorial suggests politics may be the heart of Coburn and Inhofe’s opposition, as Mikkanen is a registered Democrat, and says only the senators can solve that mystery.

There are currently 37 judicial nominees at held up in the Senate. Of them, 21 are awaiting action on the Senate floor. The Senate recessed for the holidays without acting on any of them.

High-Level Political Tiff Affects Trials in New Jersey County

A political spat between New Jersey’s Republican governor and a Democratic state senator has resulted in 11 judicial vacancies in Essex Superior Court, and in turn, a judge’s directive to begin halting civil and family court trials there for now.

“It’s an assault on the public,” said attorney Nancy Erika Smith about the situation, “and astonishing that you can generally shut down the court system because you’re having a temper tantrum. In the end, people want their day in court. Part of our democracy is you have a public court system that works.”

A Newark Star-Ledger article recounted the political dispute and its impact. It was headlined, “Christie-Rice battle over Essex County judge appointments causes trial backlog.”

The fight began when state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) blocked the appointment of a new education commissioner; the governor fired back by refusing to appoint any Superior Court judges in Essex County, even though six appointees had been agreed upon informally.

Hundreds of cases could be affected in the next two months, according to the article, which also profiled the human faces of what it called “the victims of gridlock.”


Monday Gavel Grab Briefs

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • A (Tacoma-Seattle) News Tribune article paid tribute to Washington Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander, the state’s longest-serving judge.
  • New criminal charges were filed against Janine Orie in an ongoing corruption probe, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The charges followed testimony by current and former workers for state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, the defendant’s sister.
  • “Violence casts a pall over state’s courtrooms,” declared the headline for an article in The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Judicial Campaign Fundraising Letter Stirs Concern in Pennsylvania

In the wake of letter soliciting money from Lehigh County, Penn. lawyers for the campaign of a just-elected judge, a reform advocate is urging merit selection of Pennsylvania judges.

Paul Carpenter’s commentary in the (Allentown) Morning Call reports that a letter sent to all 700 lawyers in Lehigh County — and only to lawyers — suggested contributions to Judge-Elect Doug Reichley’s campaign and specified a minimum amount, of $100.

An Allentown businessman was infuriated by the letter, but Judge-Elect Reichley didn’t perceive a problem with it. “[P]eople know me well enough to know my integrity is not going to be compromised by a campaign contribution,” he said.

Commentator Carpenter saw important questions raised by the letter, however. He wrote:

“Those who cannot see into Reichley’s heart, however, might fret over which lawyers acceded to the demands and which ones didn’t. Also, suppose you have a lawyer who paid the $100 but the other side has one who paid significantly more.”


Legislator Seeks Ethics Investigation of Wisconsin Justice

Democratic state Rep. Gary Hebl of Wisconsin has asked for an ethics investigation of a transaction by state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman.

Hebl’s request was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which last week published an article saying the judge had accepted “free legal service worth thousands of dollars from one of Wisconsin’s largest law firms as it defended him against an ethics charge” (see Gavel Grab for more).


Senate Ends Stall, Confirms Appeals Court Judge

A long Senate standoff was ended with a 95-3 vote this week to confirm Alaska Supreme Court Justice Morgan Christen to a seat on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Partisan politics was blamed for the 202-day wait between the time Justice Christen was nominated and the Senate’s vote to confirm her, according to a Los Angeles Times article. Twenty other judicial nominations still were being stalled, despite the Senate Judiciary Committee having voted to approve them.

Glenn Sugameli, an attorney and judicial analyst for Defenders of Wildlife, said Justice Christen’s vote finally came months after the committee had given its unanimous approval, and she had bipartisan backing from Alaska’s senators; but there were “inexcusable, unexplained Republican refusals to allow a vote.”

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans filibustered and blocked an up-or-down vote on the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to a federal appeals court for the District of Columbia (see Gavel Grab).

In the wake of the filibuster and one of a nominee to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a non-partisan group called No Labels urged a rules change so that “all presidential nominations should be confirmed or rejected within 90 days of the nomination being received by the Senate.” The group’s recommendations were the topic of a National Journal article.

Greater Budget Share for Trial Courts Debated in California

The California Judicial Council, which oversees state courts, voted to oppose a bill in the legislature that would give local trial courts a larger share of the overall state court budget.

Critics, including the chief lobbyist for the Administrative Office of the Courts, argued the bill interferes with the way the judicial branch governs itself, according to a Courthouse News Service article.

In a poll earlier this year, a majority of members belonging to the California Judges Association, a JAS partner group, backed the bill. The legislation also has the backing of the reformist Alliance of California Judges, which said in a recent report that California’s trial courts are “in crisis” and “the Legislature must act to protect our trial courts.”

While giving a larger budget share to trial courts, the bill “would starve funding for the powerful centralized bureaucracy of the courts,” according to Courthouse News Service.

A sharp impact on California courts is foreseen from budget cuts. Judges and court officers warned in earlier letters to Gov. Jerry Brown that the cuts would “render precarious our democratic ideal of justice for all” (see Gavel Grab).


Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Faces New Ethics Question

There’s a new ethics controversy starting to swirl around Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman.

Justice Gableman got “free legal service worth thousands of dollars from one of Wisconsin’s largest law firms as it defended him against an ethics charge,” a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article reported, based on a letter released by the law firm.

“The state’s ethics code says state officials cannot receive anything of value for free because of their position,” reporter Patrick Marley wrote. “And a separate ethics code specifically for judges says they cannot accept gifts from anyone who is likely to appear before them.

The law firm at issue has five cases before the state Supreme Court. Gordon Myse, a former member of the Government Accountability Board, suggested that authorities should investigate how the deal between the justice and the law firm worked.


Public Funding of Judicial Elections Floated in Illinois

In a draft report, an Illinois task force on campaign finance reform includes public financing of judicial elections as an option for the state to consider.

According to an Associated Press article, the draft report states reasons in favor of and against public financing, which could be expensive for the cash-strapped state. Task force members, nonetheless, contended change is needed to restore public trust in the state election system.

The task force was created in the wake of a scandal involving then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Among witnesses who urged it to consider public financing of judicial elections was the deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a JAS partner group (see Gavel Grab).

Meanwhile in Madison County, Ill., controversy simmered over $30,000 in donations to the campaign of a judge in charge of asbestos-exposure litigation, from law firms representing plaintiffs in cases; the judge was reassigned earlier this week (see Gavel Grab).


Friday Gavel Grab Posts

In these other dispatches about fair and impartial courts:

  • Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey made a prediction about legislators overhauling the state’s judicial discipline commission. “I think we’ll reconstitute the Court of the Judiciary in some manner, working with the court when we can, to make sure they more accountable to us,” a Nashville Scene article quoted the Republican as saying.
  • The Florida Supreme Court has asked the legislature to fund 72 more judgeships, but in austere budget times the request is unlikely to be met, according to an Associated Press article.
  • Three people, including a local prosecutor, were injured when a defendant in a criminal trial opened fire in the Cook County courthouse in northern Minnesota, the Associated Press reported. 
  • The Supreme Court’s “momentous term” with three exceptionally high profile cases was the topic of a NPR “Talk of the Nation” report.