Ohio Democrats to Democratic judge: Don’t run for chief justice; you could win!

The perverse nature of choosing judges through partisan elections is currently on display in Ohio, where some Democrats see no benefit to a highly qualified member of their own party running for chief justice.

The state’s current chief justice, Maureen O’Connor, is retiring in 2022, and two associate justices of the state supreme court, Patrick DeWine and Jennifer Brunner, are considering running for the open seat. In Ohio, where judges must run in partisan primaries, their party affiliation is well-known. DeWine is a Republican and Brunner is a Democrat. The retiring O’Connor is also a Republican.

Justice Brunner may well make an excellent chief, and she is certainly saying all the right things about serving the people of Ohio. But to some Democratic bean-counters, a Brunner victory only has potential downside.

Here’s why: If Brunner becomes chief justice, her current seat in the state supreme court could be filled by Governor Mike DeWine.* DeWine, a Republican, would presumably appoint a Republican judge to that seat, meaning no net gain on the court for the Democrats. Moreover, if Brunner becomes chief justice, she will only be able to serve one full six-year term before hitting the mandatory retirement age, meaning that she would have to step down from the court after the 2028 election. If she remained in her current position, however, she could in theory stay on the court until 2032.

If you subscribe to the view that judges are simply legislators in robes, maintaining a certain number of (D)s and (R)s on the court is more important than each judge’s skill, integrity, experience, and temperament. But if you view judges as actual people with professional pride and commitments to excellence, treating them as fungible back-benchers is both inaccurate and insulting.

I have no view about who would make the best chief justice for Ohio. But I do know that it has little to do with a forced party affiliation, and much more to do with people skills, administrative capacity, ambition, effort, intelligence, and drive. I hope that Ohioans agree.

* Yes, Mike DeWine is related to Justice Brunner’s opponent, Patrick DeWine. They are father and son, respectively.

The disconnect between what Americans want in their judges and how they choose them

Professor Herbert Kritzer has a very interesting new article in Judicature, exploring the qualities Americans say they want in their state judges. It turns out that professional qualities like reputation for integrity and respect from leaders of the legal community are heavily desired, while political qualities like running for holding office or respect from party leaders is much less desired.

So then why do so many states still choose their judges through partisan, or at least politically influenced, elections? I offer a few thoughts at the IAALS Blog.

States reprimand judges and judicial candidates for electoral improprieties

Judges in Florida and Ohio separately received public reprimands from their state supreme courts this week for interfering with judicial elections during the 2020 campaign.

In Florida, Judge Richard Howard received a reprimand for trying to discourage a lawyer from challenging a sitting judge during a local election, and instead urging the lawyer to challenge a different judge. While Judge Howard did not make the statements public, the state supreme court found that his actions “failed to promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary,” among other things.

In Ohio, Karen Falter, a candidate for a trial court seat in Hamilton County, was reprimanded for mailing campaign literature falsely accusing her opponent (then the incumbent) of moving into the county only three years earlier in order to take a judicial appointment. The state supreme court affirmed the reprimand, concluding that the truth about the opponent’s residency was easily verifiable and that making the false statement amounted to at least a reckless disregard of the truth.

Public reprimands are a significant form of attorney and judicial discipline. While the attorney may continue to practice and the judge may remain on the bench, the reprimand and the reasons therefor become part of the public record.

Direct elections are a troublesome way to choose judges, but as long as states require them, candidates need to comport their electoral behavior to preserve public confidence in the judiciary.

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.