African-American legislators protest South Carolina judicial election

South Carolina is one of only two states in which the legislature chooses the state’s judges. (Virginia is the other.) Often, the biggest concern about this form of selection is that legislators will choose their colleagues for the bench rather than seeking out the best possible candidates.

This week, however, a different issue arose in South Carolina’s judicial election process. In a contested race for the state court of appeals, private attorney Blake Hewitt was elected over Allison Renee Lee, a state trial judge with 20 years of experience. Hewitt was considered highly qualified for the position, but lacked any of Lee’s judicial experience. Hewitt is also white, and Lee is black.

After the election, several (but not all) black legislators briefly walked out of chambers in protest. Some suggested that the election was an act of racism, while others expressed concern about ensuring greater diversity on the state bench.

Kamala Harris doesn’t care about the judiciary

That’s the only reasonable interpretation of her stunning announcement that she will preemptively oppose any federal appellate court nominee put forth by President Trump. This is naked politics in its worst form: in an effort to score points with her political base and show off her willingness to resist the President, she is ready to deprive an entire branch of government the basic resources it needs to operate.

One might conclude that it’s all sound and fury, given that the Republicans control the Senate, and Harris’s Judiciary Committee vote will rarely be dispositive. But what an ugly precedent it sets. Should the junior senator from California succeed in her presidential aspirations, she will have set the stage for others to reject her own nominees sight unseen.

And of course, the judiciary is the body that truly suffers from this silly posturing. There are currently twelve vacancies on the federal circuit courts of appeal, half of which are on Harris’s home circuit, the Ninth Circuit. Those vacancies put pressure on the remaining judges to process heavy dockets with inadequate resources, leading to worse outcomes for criminal defendants, civil litigants, and the entire court system.

Senator Mitch McConnell was rightly criticized for failing to schedule a vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016. That was ugly power politics, and this is no different. Democrats should reject unequivocally Senator Harris’s absurd and counterproductive policy.

Mazie Hirono is wrong, and she’s playing right into Donald Trump’s hands

My latest post at the New England Faculty Blog explains why the efforts of Senate Democrats to grill judicial nominees on their religious beliefs is both wrong as a matter of course, and a strategic blunder that the President is ready to exploit.

The argument for overhauling judicial selection in New York

Ross Barkan has a compelling article with an evergreen headline: It’s time to reform New York’s machine-controlled judicial system.

I would add as (recent) Exhibits A-G:

New York City faces few takers for interim judicial appointments

Judicial aspirants brown nose at Brooklyn Democratic fundraiser

Another voice against de facto party control over the New York courts

“Insurgent” judicial candidates in Brooklyn continue their fight against machine politics

Brooklyn judicial candidates accuse local party chief of holding illegal fundraiser for their opponents

New York judicial candidate has spent over $33K from campaign coffers on other candidates and causes

Brooklyn judicial elections take an even more dismaying turn

 

Venezuelan Supreme Court justice flees country, exposes Maduro regime

A second Venezuelan judge in the last fourteen months had fled the country, further exposing the Maduro regime’s efforts to exert total control over the state’s judiciary. Christian Zerpa, a former party loyalist who was recently appointed to the Venezuelan Supreme Court, surfaced in Florida after his defection and gave a taste of the regime’s interference with the judicial process.

Zerpa surfaced publicly in Miami on Sunday, describing how he received directions from the influential first lady Cilia Flores on how to rule in politically sensitive cases.

As a newly installed justice, he recounted being summoned to the court and told to sign off on a key ruling without first reviewing its details. It disqualified three elected representatives of Amazonas state from taking their seats in congress following the opposition’s sweep of legislative elections in 2015.

The key ruling cemented Maduro’s power, preventing the opposition from amassing a two-third super majority that would have severely curtailed Maduro’s power.

Zerpa apologized for propping up Maduro’s government as long as he did, saying that he feared being jailed as a dissident where his life would be put at risk.

“I will not be able to return to Venezuela,” Zerpa said. “I am a dead man.”

 

Mexico’s Supreme Court voluntarily slashes its own pay

Last month, the new President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, publicly criticized the salaries of his country’s judges. It is now being reported that in response, the eleven justices of Mexico’s Supreme Court voted internally to reduce their pay by 25%.

Although the court said that its decision was made “in the interest of efficiency, savings, transparency and honoring the constitution,” this is plainly a response to Lopez Obrador’s relentless public statements on the subject. It’s a clear example of how external pressures can affect internal decision-making about court administration.

 

Texas judges disciplined for mutual election endorsements

Two Dallas-area judges have been disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for endorsing each other’s bid for reelection this past fall.

The commission issued two public warnings to both Kim Cooks, judge of the 255th District Court, which handles family law, and Andrea Martin, judge of the 304th District Court, which handles juvenile law.

According to their warnings, during their 2018 campaigns for re-election, Cooks and Martin produced and distributed a campaign mailer that featured their names, titles and likenesses, urging voters to vote for each of them for their respective judicial races. The mailer included statements such as “Keep this talented team working for our families and for our children.”

Cooks and Martin also produced two campaign videos and posted them on social media in which they ask voters to support both of them in their reelection efforts. In one of the videos, the judges state: “We are your Dallas County Judges, your people’s judges. We are the community judges. And we need your help.”

Cooks and Martin also told the commission that they jointly hosted a fundraising event, at which separate tables were set up for each campaign. They also stated that their individual campaigns shared equally in the costs associated with the mailer, the videos and the fundraising event.

The judges pled innocent ignorance, stating that campaign behavior was not covered at new judges school. But that’s a poor excuse, and hardly demonstrates the sensible judgment that one expects of an impartial jurist.