Gavel Grab

Judicial Vacancy Epidemic Continues to Sweep Across the States

Texas & CaliforniaCalifornia and Texas are only two of many states impacted by a judicial vacancy epidemic that has struck the nation in recent years.

The Associated Press addresses the issue with an article titled, “Wheels of Justice Slow at Overloaded Federal Courts.” The AP cites the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the rising delay in resolving civil and criminal cases because of judges’ ever-increasing workload.

The article says that the challenges are “particularly acute” in some federal courts where the judges deal with double the workload of the national average, like in the Eastern Districts of California and Texas.

Not only has the Eastern District of California had a judicial vacancy for almost three years, the article says, but the court has not had an increase in judges since 1978, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The AP reports that California’s Eastern District in Fresno is currently sustained by only one full-time district court judge, Lawrence O’Neill. The situation in the Eastern District of Texas is similar, the AP says.

According to the article, Judge O’Neill says, “We can slow things down because we simply can’t work any harder or faster… But the real important effect of that is people who need our help to move their lives forward are delayed.” 

Matt Menendez, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice finds the judicial vacancies that the federal courts are facing today to be “quite bad.” The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

Legal scholars say, “Congress needs to fill judicial vacancies more quickly but also increase the number of judges in some districts — both issues that get bogged down in partisan political fights over judicial nominees,” according to the AP.

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California’s Diversity Addressed in its Courts

The Napa Valley Register reports that California State Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuèllar spoke at the Legal Aid of Napa Valley’s fifth annual Pro Bono Recognition Event, presenting an ambitious project to tackle language barriers in the California’s courts.

The Justice spoke of his own experience as an immigrant from Mexico as he addressed the difficulties faced by non-English speakers whose languages are unrepresented by the state’s courts. Cuéllar recognized the overdue need to adapt to the people’s diversity in the courts. His goal is make the California court system “accessible to people who speak English as a second language or not at all,” the Register explains. Read more

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Judicial Diversity Including LGBT Judges is Urged

In  California and New York, advocates are urging enhanced judicial diversity through selection of judges who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

New York Assemblywoman Deborah Glick is calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to name a LGBT person to the Court of Appeals, the highest court, according to WSHU Public Radio. “Representing the full diversity of New York State, it would be appropriate to have an openly LGBT jurist on the court of Appeals,” Glick said.

In California, according to a San Diego Source article, a coalition of LGBT bar associations has recommended establishing a state LGBT judges association, mentorship initiatives, and ways to expand the strong applicants in the pipeline for judgeships. The article, “Local attorneys seek greater judicial diversity,” is available through searching by Google.

Justice at Stake believes that diversity on the bench improves the quality of justice and builds faith and confidence in the legitimacy of the courts. You can learn more from the JAS web page on the topic.

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Connecticut Death Penalty Struck Down, California’s Affirmed

The Connecticut Supreme Court struck down that state’s death penalty this week, while the California Supreme Court affirmed the Golden State’s death penalty.

According to the Associated Press, the Connecticut court said the death penalty “no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency” and violates Connecticut’s constitution. In 2012, the legislature repealed the death penalty for future crimes while leaving it intact for those sentenced to die.

The California court, according to At the Lectern blog, rejected among other issues a condemned defendant’s argument he could not get impartial justice because the Superior Court judge and Supreme Court justices can face judicial elections. (These judges are appointed by the governor and if they seek to stay on the bench must face a retention election in the next gubernatorial election year after appointment.) Read more

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Petition Process for Judicial Recall Approved in California

The Registrar of Voters in Orange County, Ca. has given a go-ahead for petitioners to start gathering signatures in their effort to recall a judge whose sentencing of a pedophile stirred controversy. The judge has called the recall petition “an attack on judicial independence.”

The Orange County Register reported the latest developments in the effort to recall Superior Court Judge Marc Kelly.  The deadline for collecting signatures is Dec. 31, and the recall campaign chairman said a minimum of 90,829 verifiable signatures will be required in order to get a recall election on the June 2016 ballot.

To learn background about the sentencing and controversy, see Gavel Grab.  

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LA Times Against Upcoming Judicial Recall

Judge M. Marc Kelly

Judge M. Marc Kelly

The LA Times took a stand for Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly, who is facing a recall election after sentencing a child molester to 10 years in prison. The editorial contends that the judge has a judicious record, and the decision was his to make on the merits of the case.

Kelly says “he believed the minimum 25-year sentence required under Jessica’s Law, adopted by voters in 2006, would be unconstitutional in this case,” so he issued a lesser sentence. Public outrage followed, so now he may lose his job for acting within his authority, the editorial asserts.

Read more

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CA Judge: Recall Petition ‘An Attack on Judicial Independence’

Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly sponsored a juror appreciation luncheon at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana Wednesday. Superior Court Juror Appreciation Week runs from May 13-17.  ///ADDITIONAL INFO //// jurorday.0515.ots -- shot 5/15/13 --   ///  Photo by H. Lorren Au Jr., Orange County Register.

Judge Kelly

An Orange County, Ca. Superior Court judge, facing a recall effort over his sentencing of a man convicted of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old girl, has criticized the recall petition as “an attack on judicial independence.”

Judge Marc Kelly said, according to the Orange County Register, in his first public remarks:

“I took an oath to uphold the Constitution, not to appease politicians. A judge who doesn’t follow the Constitution today won’t follow it tomorrow when your rights are at stake.

“Don’t let politicians intimidate judges. Keep politics out of courtrooms.”

Read more

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Editorial: CA Should Consider Ending Superior Court Judge Elections

Flag-of-CaliforniaIt’s high time for California to consider appointing Superior Court judges instead of electing them, says a San Jose Mercury News editorial. Naming names, it points to the examples of one “clueless judge” and one “smart one who telegraphs bias.”

The editorial says that “Through no fault of their own, voters have little basis upon which to identify the best candidate in a judicial campaign.” It adds, “And personality traits that may charm voters do not necessarily equate to great judicial material.”

The editorial notes that when the governor fills interim vacancies, applicants “are thoroughly vetted on a range of judicial qualities.” By contrast, it says, “Some attorneys who run in local elections would not make it through the review for an appointment regardless of political party.”

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In California, Continuing Impact From Court Funding Cuts

courtclosedIn California, a state that saw dramatic cuts to court funding during the recession, the impact on residents’ access to justice still is being felt — especially in the civil courts, according to an extensive KQED report.

“It felt like we were just second-class citizens — like it didn’t matter … just settle it for whatever they are giving you,” Maria Reyes said. Her attorney said she had a strong case against her landlord over dismal conditions at her family’s apartment. A San Mateo county judge, however, said a trial date couldn’t be set for  a year. Reyes and her family settled out of court for far less than they thought they could win at trial.

With four county courtrooms shuttered, civil trials in the county are restricted to one or two a week. And it’s not just San Mateo County where the cutbacks still are felt: Read more

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Efficiency Standards Not Sufficient to Offset Court Budget Cuts

State judiciaries are rushing to implement higher court efficiency standards in order to cope with insufficient budgets, but case backlogs are still plaguing the system. The Chief Justices of some of these states have been busy publicizing these issues, hoping to convince their respective legislatures to increase their funding.

Montana Chief Justice Mike McGrath reminded legislators in his State of the Judiciary that “small businesses and working people” will be the victims if the court budget is further cut. The Helena Independent Record summarized McGrath’s appeal to the legislature, where he outlined the state’s successful reforms. These include drug treatment programs and the Court Help Program, which provide alternatives to adjudication and prevent dockets from becoming unnecessarily cluttered. Still, with approximately 350,000 cases per year, more cuts threaten these hard-won successes.

Read more

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