Alaska Chief Justice recuses himself in gubernatorial recall case

Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, has recused himself from a case involving the legality of a campaign to recall the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy. Bolger made the decision in light of his previous statements criticizing the governor for failing to follow established procedures in appointing a district judge. Bolger also told audiences that Alaskans should resist “political influence” over the judiciary and should fight for judicial independence.

The Court invited interested parties to file motions seeking Bolger’s recusal, with a February 26 deadline. No motions were received, but Bolger determined on his own that recusal was appropriate. In a two-page Recusal Notice, he stated:

As stated previously, I do not have any personal bias or prejudice concerning the parties or attorneys involved in this case.  However, I have special public responsibilities as the administrative head of the Alaska Court System and as the chairman ex-officio of the Alaska Judicial Council.  In those capacities, I have made public statements that could suggest a strong disagreement with the governor’s conduct on some very fundamental issues affecting the judicial branch, conduct that forms part of the basis for the recall petition under consideration.  In other words, this is a case where a reasonable person might question whether my judgment is affected by my overriding public responsibilities to the justice system.

Earlier thoughts on Bolger’s comments, and the propriety of judges speaking out, here.

The Court will consider the legality of the recall on March 25, with retired Justice Robert Eastaugh filling in for Bolger. It is widely expected that the Court will uphold the validity of the recall effort.

McConnell gives “golden gavel” to John Roberts after impeachment trial

After the close of the impeachment trial of President Trump this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell presented Chief Justice John Roberts with a “golden gavel.” The token is ordinarily presented to Senators who have sat in the presiding chair for 100 hours. Roberts certainly filled that minimal qualification during his many hours presiding over the trial.

I recently took Elizabeth Warren to task for her trial question that crassly challenged the legitimacy of Roberts and the Supreme Court. McConnell’s presentation can be seen as only a slightly more subtle effort to politicize the Chief Justice for partisan gain. True, Roberts did yeoman’s work in presiding over the trial, all the while maintaining his busy day job (which only involves hearing oral arguments, writing opinions, navigating the personalities and needs of his fellow Justices, and managing an entire branch of the federal government). And in a different era, the presentation of the golden gavel might be properly viewed as a sincere token of appreciation. In this deeply partisan environment, however, it primarily exploits the Chief Justice’s participation to court favor with Republicans — a misappropriation of judicial goodwill for partisan gain.

 

 

Warren’s attempt to question third branch legitimacy fails spectacularly

The American political scene is moving at lightning speed these days, with impeachment proceedings, the Iowa caucuses, the State of the Union, and the government’s response to the coronavirus threat all competing for our attention. But I would be remiss if I failed to note the outrageous question that Senator Elizabeth Warren posed during the impeachment trial last week.

All questions, of course, were required to be written on notecards and passed to Chief Justice Roberts, who read them aloud for response by either the House Managers or the President’s lawyers. Here is what Warren asked:

“At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government, does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution?”

Oh, good grief. Roberts has to preside over the trial — it’s right in the Constitution. Calling into question the legitimacy of the entire Supreme Court and the Constitution during a partisan political skirmish was both cheap politics and degrading to the very foundation of American democracy. And she was roundly scolded for the stunt, from observers on all sides of the political spectrum.

This blog has chastised the President and many others for their similar tendencies to attack the courts’ legitimacy when they cannot achieve their political objectives. Let’s add Elizabeth Warren to that list as well. If she truly wants to improve Americans’ faith in government, perhaps she could start by showing appropriate respect for its institutions and design.

Walker to be new West Virginia Chief Justice

Justice Beth Walker has been chosen by her peers to be the next Chief Justice of West Virginia. Walker was cleared of impeachment charges by the West Virginia Senate earlier this month. She will face the important task of restoring public confidence in a court shaken by financial and fraud scandals over the past year.

West Virginia House impeaches four Supreme Court Justices

The West Virginia House of Delegates has voted to impeach four justices of its (five-member) supreme court. Lawmakers were largely unified on the impeachment of Allen Loughry, a Republican whose alleged fraud has led to federal charges, as well as Republican Beth Walker. Democrats in the House expressed opposition to impeaching fellow Democrats Margaret Workman and Robin Davis. In the end, however, all four were impeached.

Davis immediately resigned from the Court, accusing the House of staging a partisan coup. Her resignation was retroactive to Monday, meaning that a special election will be held for her seat this November. Under current law, if the three remaining justices are convicted, their replacements would be appointed by Governor Jim Justice.

In her resignation speech, Davis charged the Republicans in the legislature with conducting a witch hunt, alleging that “What we are witnessing is a disaster for the rule of law, the foundation for our state and, indeed, our own society…. For when a legislative body attempts to dismantle a separate branch of government, the immediate effects, as well as the precedent it sets for the future, can only be deemed disastrous.”

Davis’s claims would be cause for sincere alarm in many states, but her own actions suggest instead that they are wholly disingenuous. Her resignation was explicitly timed to trigger a special election. Under West Virginia law, if a judge leaves the bench more than 84 days before a scheduled election, the voters choose a replacement. If the judge leaves the bench with less time before the next election, however, her replacement is chosen by the governor. Monday, unsurprisingly, was exactly 84 days before the general election.

Davis’s retroactive resignation is nothing more than a transparent political ploy.  (She is not alone: House Democrats introduced a bill later in the day that would provide for special elections for all three remaining justices if they are impeached.) While Davis has not been proven guilty of the articles of impeachment, her refusal to even contest the charges and go to trial further undermines what little public confidence must remain in the court.

This is all rather extraordinary — but less so for West Virginia, whose long history of partisan judicial elections, questionable ethical practices, and big money influence is legendary. The state’s House Judiciary Committee Chairman, John Shott, said yesterday that “No one takes joy in this process.” If that sentiment is genuine, perhaps the people of West Virginia and their elected leaders should change the judicial selection system that makes circumstances like this possible.

In any event, the process now moves to the state senate for trial, which will be conducted by the judge standing: freshly appointed interim Justice Paul Farrell. Conviction requires a 2/3 vote of the 34-member chamber. No trial date has been scheduled.

Update on West Virginia Supreme Court impeachment proceedings

Today, the West Virginia House of Delegates will begin considering articles of impeachment against 80% of its supreme court. Fourteen articles were brought against four justices last week, mostly related to overspending, fraud, and creating a culture of overspending and fraud.

The full articles of impeachment can be found here.

Meanwhile, Judge Paul Farrell was sworn in as a temporary supreme court justice on Friday, replacing Allen Loughry, who has been suspended. (Loughry continues to hold his title and is one of the four justices facing impeachment.) In a strange twist, Chief Justice Margaret Workman (who is also facing impeachment) issued an administrative order appointing Farrell as acting chief justice for impeachment proceedings. In other words, if the House votes to impeach all four justices, a brand new justice with a temporary appointment would be thrust into the unenviable position of presiding over the trial.

Pennsylvania’s chief justice, attorney general condemn impeachment efforts

Legislative efforts to impeach four Democratic Justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have been roundly criticized by a wide range of observers. This week, Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (a Republican) and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (a Democrat) added their voices to the chorus.

Shapiro, a Democrat, said impeachment is “a serious and rarely used tool that is reserved for misbehavior in office, rather than opposition to a justice’s legal opinion.”

He went on to point out that the courts have handed down opinions during his time as attorney general that he opposed but he trusts that they were rendered by the courts “on integrity and based on the law.”

Shapiro said, “The independence of the judiciary is at stake and I would urge clear-thinking members of both parties in the state House to reject this effort.”

Yes.