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.
Pennsylvania is one of at least four states that holds judicial elections in off-years. This November, two candidates competed for a seat on the superior court (an intermediate appellate court) and four appellate judges, including two supreme court justices, stood for retention. Additionally, in New York, voters considered a proposed constitutional amendment that would have raised the mandatory retirement age for judges on the state’s highest court and major trials courts.
Appellate judges in 38 states stand for election. But how much do we know about them? Are they fair? Do they write opinions that parties can understand? Are they doing a good job? With only a fraction of states providing such information about appellate judges, very few voters have what they need to make an informed and responsible decision at the ballot box. We at IAALS are working to change that with our newest publication.
IAALS is thrilled by the news that Judge Russell Carparelli of the Colorado Court of Appeals will take the helm at the American Judicature Society (AJS) as of January 1, 2014. IAALS has partnered with AJS on a handful of projects and we look forward to strengthening our collaborative relationship under his leadership. And Judge Carparelli is also a friend of IAALS in both the professional and personal sense, engaged actively in our Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers and Quality Judges Initiatives.
According to a new poll, nearly nine in ten voters believe that judicial campaign support—whether in the form of direct contributions or independent spending—influences judicial decisions. This figure is a sharp increase from similar polls conducted over the last decade. These heightened concerns could be a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United or to a marked rise in judicial election spending, particularly by outside groups, in recent years.
Florida has a commission-based judicial appointment process wherein the governor appoints all members of the nominating commissions, with some of the governor’s appointees come from candidate lists submitted by the Florida Bar. According to a new report, Governor Rick Scott often rejects the bar lists and requests additional names, unlike his predecessors Charlie Crist and Jeb Bush, who always accepted the bar’s recommendations. And, the pace of these rejections is expected to rise.
According to a new analysis, justices on Wisconsin’s high court tend to favor parties whose attorneys contributed to their election campaigns. With respect to campaign donations made prior to rulings, justices included in the study ruled in favor of donors 59 percent at the time. This does not establish that campaign support actually influenced decisions, but fair courts advocates worry that the public perceives this to be the case.
Over the summer, the Tennessee legislature declined to renew the state’s judicial nominating commission, which was used to recommend well-qualified candidates for appellate judgeships to the governor. Instead, lawmakers chose to let Tennesseans weigh in on the issue in 2014. The judicial selection process appeared to be in limbo in the interim, but Republican Governor Bill Haslam has acted to fill the gap, creating a screening panel by executive order.
As Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts celebrates its 25th year, supporters of moving from partisan elections to commission-based appointment of the state’s appellate judges are optimistic that the time is finally right. That optimism stems largely from two recent scandals that have plagued the state supreme court. The reform legislation also enjoys support on both sides of the aisle.