Last week, the Alabama legislature passed a new law that addresses judicial disqualification in cases involving campaign contributors. The state is an ideal target for recusal reform. From 2000-2009, Alabama ranked first in the nation in campaign fundraising and spending for state supreme court races. The 2006 cycle alone saw $14.5 million in contributions and expenditures.
Another voice has joined a growing chorus calling for more openness in the selection and evaluation of Hawaii’s state court judges. Critics of the lack of transparency make some valid points about the need to shine more light on these vital processes, particularly when we consider how other states address this issue.
Four of the seven seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court are on the ballot in November. The current ideological balance on the court is 4-3, with a Republican majority, and three of the four seats up for election are currently held by Democrats. Commentators anticipate millions of dollars in special interest spending in the coming months.
With state legislatures in session around the country and considering bills that would impact the selection and tenure of state judges, IAALS Online provides this summary of where things stand at the end of March. Developments in: Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington.
The Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association dedicated its Winter 2014 publication to the Judiciary. As part of the WTLA’s review of the bench, IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis wrote an article about one way that Wyoming can enhance its selection and retention process, by conducting judicial performance evaluations.
Rhode Island’s judicial nominating commission met recently to discuss potential improvements to the commission’s work. Much of the discussion focused on the transparency of the process. The governor has allotted $7,500 to hire an expert to advise the commission on its procedures, with any proposed changes subject to a public hearing process.
The terms of three members of Florida’s seven-member supreme court are set to expire at the same time that the next Florida governor’s term expires—on January 8, 2019. Recognizing that state law is unclear as to whether the outgoing or incoming governor has the authority to fill judicial vacancies that occur on inauguration day, a Republican senator has offered a proposed constitutional amendment that would empower the outgoing governor to make these appointments.
The Kansas Supreme Court’s long-awaited school funding decision may prevent an all-out legislative assault on the state’s courts. On March 7, the high court ruled that funding disparities among the state’s school districts violate the state constitution. According to Kansas’ attorney general, the court adopted a middle ground.
Texas’ Republican primary elections on March 4 have brought together an unusual combination of candidates and campaign contributors, at least with respect to the state’s highest court. The incumbent Republican justices have received support from a typical source—advocates of tort reform and limitations on civil lawsuits—but their Republican challengers are benefiting from donations by trial attorneys and left-of-center groups, who historically have backed Democratic candidates.
Republican state legislators have proposed a bill that would increase the size of, and allow the governor to appoint a majority of members to, the Alaska Judicial Council. The AJC serves as both the judicial nominating commission and the judicial performance evaluation commission. Under the new bill, the AJC would be expanded to 16 members, and the change would require amending the constitution.
HB 3380 would establish a judicial performance evaluation program for Oklahoma’s appellate and trial judges, and is remarkably similar to processes that already operate successfully in seven states where judges appear on the ballot, as they do in Oklahoma. The contemplated JPE program in Oklahoma is objective, broad-based, and apolitical, and an improvement on existing processes.
There are several anticipated efforts in 2014 to alter processes for selecting state court judges, particularly in states with commission-based gubernatorial appointment of appellate judges. In Kansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, as in Arizona and Florida in recent years, legislative proposals are aimed at directly or indirectly expanding the governor’s appointing authority.
For the first time in more than 40 years, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has amended its Code of Judicial Conduct. Among the new rules is a provision that requires judges to recuse themselves from hearing cases where the judge knows or learns that a party, a party’s lawyer, or the law firm of a party’s lawyer has made a direct or indirect contribution(s) to the judge’s campaign.
A Tennessee trial court judge has ruled that the composition of the state’s judicial performance evaluation commission violates the state constitution. Despite invalidating the commission’s composition, the judge did not enjoin its operation, and, three days after the ruling, the commission released its final evaluations and recommendations for the appellate judges standing for retention later this year.
With the start of a new year comes the convening of state legislatures around the country, and, in a number of states, judicial selection reform is on the table. Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania will all consider changes in how their judges reach the bench.
IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis paid a pre-holiday, virtual visit to LXBN TV to talk about the effects of partisan elections of judges across the country. Kourlis weighed in on the same concerns that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently voiced regarding the influence that partisan elections can have on judges’ decisions.
According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN), more than $18 million was spent in two Michigan Supreme Court races in 2012. Of this, nearly $14 million was spent on candidate-focused issue advertising, but the sponsors of those ads were not required to disclose their spending or identify their donors. A bill that would codify the current non-disclosure rule has supporters and opponents who are urging the governor to take their side.
IAALS is happy to welcome Colorado Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janice B. Davidson (Ret.) as she takes on her role as Senior Advisor at IAALS. Chief Judge Davidson will be involved with all of IAALS’ initiatives to some extent, but will focus her time primarily on the Quality Judges Initiative, beginning in January 2014.
In August 2014, all of Tennessee’s appellate judges will appear on the ballot, and voters will decide whether they should be retained in office. By that time, the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission will have provided information to the public about these judges’ performance on the bench. Last month, the commission announced that it may take the unprecedented step of recommending against the retention of three intermediate appellate court judges.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently published an article about proposed legislation to change the Pennsylvania judicial selection process. IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis was interviewed in the article about the proposed legislation and the benefits of merit selection. She noted that the Pennsylvania proposal contains the front-end nominating commission process endorsed by IAALS as the O’Connor Judicial Selection Plan.
The U.S. Senate voted 52 to 48 to change its rules regarding use of the filibuster to block votes on nominees to the lower federal courts and executive branch positions. The immediate impact of this development will be to allow votes on three nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit whose appointments Republicans have blocked. Writing for CNN.com, IAALS Board of Advisors member Russell Wheeler suggested that the three will be confirmed “but at a cost.”
In a recent opinion dissenting from the denial of certiorari in an Alabama death penalty case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether the pressures of partisan judicial elections influence judges’ decisions in cases involving hot-button issues like capital punishment. Social scientists have examined the question before, and have come to similar conclusions.
O’Connor Advisory Committee member and former Texas chief justice Wallace Jefferson recently appeared on MSNBC’s Craig Melvin show. That segment of the program focused on the findings of the latest New Politics of Judicial Elections report. In his remarks, Jefferson acknowledged the value of judicial accountability but suggested that voters do not have enough information about judges and judicial candidates to cast votes based on merit.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill calling for a move to merit selection for judges of Pennsylvania’s appellate courts. The proposed constitutional amendment would replace partisan elections with a commission-based gubernatorial appointment and senate confirmation process. And, the time may be right for selection reform in the state, according to a recent survey.