State courts come under legislative assault

State legislators are trying to politicize their judiciaries for short-term gain. Courts, their users, and the public must speak up to stop them.

The first weeks of the 2021 legislative session have seen an extraordinary number of proposals to overhaul the selection of judges or otherwise affect the composition of state judiciaries. Among them:

In Montana, Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the state’s judicial nominating commission, giving the governor direct appointment power over district court judges and state supreme court justices. The nominating commission, in place for nearly half a century, was expressly implemented to depoliticize the judicial appointment process. Despite an outpouring of criticism for the proposal, which is widely seen as a partisan gambit by new Governor Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators, the bill passed the legislature last week. If signed by the governor, the bill would make Montana a national outlier in its refusal to use an independent nominating commission.

In Alaska, a very similar bill would eliminate the role of the state’s nominating commission for the appointment of judges on the district courts and state court of appeals. Senate Bill 14 was introduced by Republican senator Mike Shower in late January. As in Montana, the bill has been panned as “a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska’s system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics.” Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, similarly criticized the bill as undermining a well-established and respected judicial selection process. Continue reading “State courts come under legislative assault”

More on the Pennsylvania plan to create partisan judicial elections by district

I was pleased to weigh in this week on the proposed Pennsylvania legislation that would shift partisan elections for its state supreme court from a statewide ballot to a regional one. (More on the proposal here and here.) As the Spotlight PA article suggests, my concern is not with creating geographic districts, but rather with the potentially explosive mix of districts and partisan races. That combination seems to me to especially invite special interest and dark money, similar to the notorious 2004 supreme court election in Illinois.

Interestingly enough, South Carolina is also considering a move to expand and diversity the geographic perspective of its supreme court, which is chosen entirely by the legislature. We’ll continue to follow both proposals here.

Cook County attorney steals a page from Trump’s playbook

Back in November, Illinois attorney Frank DiFranco ran for a local judicial seat in Cook County. He lost the election to incumbent Patricia Fallon. But that isn’t stopping DiFranco from trying to change the election outcome in court. The Chicago Tribune reports:

The federal lawsuit, which names the clerk’s office, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, the Illinois State Board of Elections and Fallon as defendants, alleges that the clerk’s office continued counting ballots after the Nov. 17 state deadline and that a “great majority” of these ballots favored his opponent.

“The clerk’s motivation for including votes received after Nov. 17 to the vote tally in the 12th Judicial Subcircuit was to help the Democratic candidate win,” DiFranco’s lawsuit alleges.

In his complaint, DiFranco also accuses the clerk’s office of “altering” the postmarks on vote-by-mail envelopes to make them “appear to have been postmarked on or before Nov. 3,” and claims the clerk’s office counted ballots that had already been counted, resulting in higher vote totals.

Fallon in November attributed her win to the large number of mail-in votes, which were still being counted when DiFranco appeared to be leading in the race.

It’s perfectly fine for judicial candidates, like any candidate, to vigorously monitor election results, including asking for recounts in close races. But when votes have been certified and there is little real evidence of wrongdoing (as opposed to naked allegations), relitigating elections in court can only undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary and the democratic process.

Texas commission recommends move to nonpartisan judicial elections

The fifteen-member Texas Commission on Judicial Selection has issued a formal report recommending that the state move away from partisan judicial elections in favor of nonpartisan elections. A bar majority of the commission members — eight — supported the change. But since most dissenters are state legislators, it seems unlikely that the commission’s recommendations will be followed anytime soon.

The Texas Tribune has an excellent summary and analysis here. A snippet:

“I do not believe the citizens, my constituents of the state of Texas, want this right taken away from them, and I’m not gonna be in a position or be the one who does that,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said at the committee’s final meeting in December. Huffman, who served as a trial judge in Houston, and said the experience of campaigning for the bench had been valuable.

The counterargument to that came most persuasively from former judges, who have been pointing out for years that while Texans say they cherish their ability to elect judges, they typically have little idea who they’re choosing between.

In Houston, for example, there are dozens of judges on the ballot, lists long enough that even top local attorneys struggle to familiarize themselves with every candidate.

In the absence of better information, voters often turn to the demographic clues they can glean from the ballot itself. In this year’s Democratic judicial primaries, for example, female candidates got more votes than male candidates in every gender-split race, about 30. And in Republican primaries, judicial candidates with Hispanic-sounding surnames have often fared poorly, owing, experts say, to a largely white electorate.

“Judges can be elected even though no one knows who they are,” pointed out Wallace Jefferson, who was the first Black chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Instead of vetting the qualifications of the judicial hopefuls they are choosing between, he said, voters often choose based on party affiliation, “or they vote based on the sound of your name.”

 

North Carolina election finally comes to a close as Newby sworn in as Chief Justice

The hotly contested election for Chief Justice of North Carolina, which went through several recounts and concluded with challenger Paul Newby winning by 401 votes, is now formally in the books. Newby was sworn in as the state’s 30th chief justice on Friday.

North Carolina Chief Justice election still undecided

More than a month after Election Day, the race to be Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court remains unsettled. Challenger Paul Newby won the original count over current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley by 406 votes. That lead dipped slightly after a machine recount, to 401 votes. Beasley then requested a manual recount in selected precincts, which is ongoing (and scheduled to be completed by December 14).

But the ancillary fights continue. Beasley has filed 87 protests across the state, conending that thousands of ballots were improperly disqualified. Newby has filed 14 protests of his own, arguing that hundreds of late-postmarked or otherwise invalid ballots were improperly counted.

After this episode, whoever wins — and it seems likely to be Newby — public confidence in the North Carolina Supreme Court as a fair and impartial body is almost certain to decline.

Electoral chickens come home to roost in North Carolina courts

Back in 2017, the North Carolina legislature repeatedly battled Governor Roy Cooper over the size and composition of the state’s courts. The Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill which would return the state to partisan judicial elections, a move criticized both by Democrat Cooper and by the state’s then-Chief Justice, Mark Martin (who favored a merit selection plan). Cooper vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode the veto. The legislature and Governor also fought over the size of the state’s Court of Appeals. Later, a series of undignified fights over the fate of individual judges and judicial candidates cast the state’s third branch in a political light that it never would have sought for itself.

The legislature’s changes seem to have had some of their desired partisan effect for 2020. As noted last week, Republican candidates at first appeared to sweep the state’s judicial races. Now the highest profile race, for Chief Justice, appears headed for a recount, with current Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (a Democrat) and current Associate Justice Paul Newby (a Republican) separated by just a few thousand votes.

There are also some cascade effects. Newby’s choice to run for Chief Justice meant that his Associate Justice seat on the court became vacant, and that open seat was sought by two Court of Appeals Judges, Lucy Inman and Phil Berger Jr. Berger, the Republican, won the Supreme Court seat, and his now-open seat on the Court of Appeals will be filled by Governor Cooper. In the end, the seven-member Supreme Court will still have a Democratic majority — either four (if Newby wins the Chief Justiceship) or five (if Beasley retains it).

So at the end of the day, Republicans may make some inroads into the state judiciary, but at the cost of further politicizing the third branch. Courts will have to work harder than ever to build public trust, not because of the quality of their decisions, but because legislators have seen fit to brand them with a (D) or an (R).

Until partisans on both sides end their efforts to undermine the courts in this way, I don’t want to hear a damn thing about declining judicial legitimacy. It is a frontal assault on a co-equal branch of government, nothing less.

 

Election 2020: a quick state court roundup

Even with all eyes trained on the Presidential election, voters in more than thirty states also cast ballots this week for (or against) state judges. Here are some of the preliminary stories coming out of Election Day:

In both Dallas County and Harris County, Texas, Democrats swept the contested judicial races, making it yet another election cycle in which a single party has taken control of the state judiciary in Texas’s two largest metro areas. In North Carolina, a party sweep of another type took place, with Republican judicial candidates winning each of their judicial races. Neither case should be seen as good news. Party sweeps strip the courts of critical judicial experience, replacing it only with a partisan fetish that a judge with an (R) or a (D) next to his name will rule in a certain way. If the judges are fair, the partisans are more often than not disappointed by some case outcomes. And if the judges give the partisans what they want every time, the integrity of the judiciary is compromised. (Just a thought: perhaps it is finally time to eliminate partisan judicial elections altogether.)

In Illinois, for the first time, a sitting supreme court justice lost his retention bid. A little less than 57% of voters chose to retain Justice Thomas Kilbride, but under the state’s unique rules, at least 60% of voters needed to favor retention for Kilbride to keep his seat. Thus we have the unusual circumstance in which a judge whom most voters wanted to retain nevertheless will have to leave the bench. (The unusual nature of Illinois’s judicial retention system has an equally unusual history, which I might try to unpack in a future blog post.)

In Tampa, Florida, a state trial judge who lost his primary race in August pushed the state supreme court not to certify this week’s judicial election results. The judge is arguing that the current state law allows judicial races to be settled in the primaries, whereas the state constitution requires that they be decided during the November general election.

And in Arizona (where ballots are still being counted as of this writing), the Maricopa County Democratic Party campaigned against the retention of two state trial judges, including the only Native American judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court. Both targeted judges were deemed by the state’s independent Commission on Judicial Performance Review to have met performance standards. Unlike Illinois, a simple majority in favor of retention is enough to keep the judges on the bench.

Fifth Circuit reverses holding that Louisiana’s judicial elections disenfranchise minority voters

Back in 2014, a number of groups led by the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, alleging that the state’s “at large” system for electing judges systematically disenfranchised minority voters, in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs sought to replace the “at large” system with five geographic districts which, they argued, would increase the likelihood that a non-white judge would be elected.

After a lengthy pretrial process and a highly publicized bench trial, U.S. District Judge James Brady concluded in August 2017 that the “at large” system was unconstitutional, and ordered the parties to come up with an acceptable solution involving specific judicial election districts. When the parties were unable to do so, Judge Brady appointed a special master in December 2018 to draw a new district map.

Meanwhile, the defendants (essentially the State of Lousiana, through its Attorney General) appealed Judge Brady’s decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the end of June, that court reversed Judge Brady, concluding that the plaintiffs had not met their burden under Thornburg v. Gingles and related Fifth Circuit precedent. Gingles requires that a party challenging an at-large voting system on behalf of a protected class of citizens demonstrate that “(1) the group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district; (2) it is politically cohesive; and (3) the white majority votes sufficiently as a bloc to enable it usually to defeat the minority’s preferred candidate.” Continue reading “Fifth Circuit reverses holding that Louisiana’s judicial elections disenfranchise minority voters”