Ninth Circuit upholds Montana’s nonpartisan judicial election scheme

In another example of judges ruling on the status of other judges, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the propriety of Montana’s nonpartisan judicial elections. The nonpartisan scheme was challenged by a judicial candidate who argued that his inability to seek, accept, or use political endorsements in his campaign violated his First Amendment rights. Citing recent Supreme Court precedent, the panel upheld the state’s restrictions on political endorsements.

The full opinion is here.

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North Carolina judges try to stay neutral on selection fight

I have tracked the ongoing legislative battle in North Carolina over the selection of state judges. The judges themselves are caught in the middle, unable to comment in any direct or meaningful way. This article nicely demonstrates how sitting judges in the state are navigating the treacherous political waters.

Note that judges can — and sometimes do — comment on legislative issues that affect them. But most of the time that commentary goes to judicial salaries and resources, or other relatively apolitical issues affecting the judiciary as a whole. This selection debate is a political morass, and the judges are wise to stay out if they can.

Florida judge faces removal for ethics violations

Palm Beach County judge Dana Santino, who last spring admitted to serious ethics violations during her election campaign last November, is now asking the Florida Supreme Court to reject a recommendation that she be removed from office.

Santino admitted making statements disparaging her opponent’s criminal defense work–statements which were found to impugn the integrity of her opponent and the entire legal profession. After an investigation, the state Judicial Qualifications Commissions recommended that Santino lose her judicial position.

The state supreme court has yet to make a decision, and could still schedule oral arguments on the Commission’s recommendation. Judge Santino remains on the county civil court bench pending resolution of the matter.

North Carolina judicial selection update

It has been a while since I wrote about the political wrangling between North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and the state legislature over the selection of state judges. But a lot has been going on.

Some background: North Carolina primarily elects its judges, with the governor filling vacancies on an interim basis as they occur. But there seems to be a general consensus that the current process is not functioning well. Contested (now partisan) elections, political gamesmanship with respect to filling judicial vacancies, and outworn judicial districts all have contributed to the malaise. The issue has become a flashpoint in recent months, in part because of a widely publicized tug-of-war between the state’s courts and its Republican legislature. The court system has struck down many significant pieces of legislation in recent months, leading to loud complaints from legislators.

In the last several weeks, under the guise of judicial reform, the state legislature has passed two bills that would radically remake the state’s judicial selection process–and with it, the state’s judiciary.

Continue reading “North Carolina judicial selection update”

California makes its judicial elections marginally less awful

Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill requiring judicial candidates in California to appear on the ballot with “actual government job titles” rather than fanciful designations designed to elicit emotional voter reaction.  In recent elections, candidates have sought and received ballot designations like “Child Molestation Prosecutor” and “Gang Murder Prosecutor.” Under the new law, candidates will have to list either their formal job titles (e.g., “City of Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney”) or provide a short, neutral description of their work (e.g., “Attorney at Law”).

The bill had broad bipartisan support, and it is not hard to see why. Allowing candidates to select their own designations may spur the voter reaction needed to win (who doesn’t love a “Gang Murder Prosecutor”?), but badly poisoned the impartiality and legitimacy of California’s elected judiciary. How could any criminal defendant hope for a fair trial before a judge who owed his election to that prosecutorial slogan? Even if the judge was able to transition to a mode of impartial decisionmaker — which many prosecutors have done with great success — who would believe it?

This was, then, an eminently sensible move. But Californians should hardly be complacent. The state’s more than 1500 trial judges are still chosen by popular election, and there is little reason to be confident that merely removing the most egregious designations from the ballot will improve matters much. Over the years, the state’s judicial elections have been poisoned by ethical lapses, the flow of money into campaign coffers, and political dog-whistling.  And there is an alternative: the state uses gubernatorial appointment to fill unexpected vacancies on the trial court (due, for example,  to death, retirement, or promotion), and that process that could be extended to all trial court selection. True, it would take a constitutional amendment, but many states have done just that over the past 70 years.

I am not holding my breath just yet. But until serious judicial election reform comes to the Golden State, Californians are merely editing out the worst excesses of a lousy system.

Brooklyn judicial elections take an even more dismaying turn

This blog has been closely following the Democratic primary elections for county judge in Brooklyn, New York, where voters were forced to choose between candidates approved by the Democratic party machine and a group of “insurgents” running on an independent slate. The election took place earlier this month, and the results are … flabbergasting.

Continue reading “Brooklyn judicial elections take an even more dismaying turn”

More fallout from a heated Florida judicial election

In March, I flagged a story about Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino, who was elected last November after running a particularly ugly campaign against his opponent, Gregg Lerman.  Judge Santino ran ads suggesting that Lerman, a defense attorney, represents “murders, rapists, child molesters, and other criminals.” She was subsequently investigated by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, and admitted to violating two canons of judicial ethics. The Commission has yet to issue a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court about Judge Santino’s punishment, if any.

In the meantime, there has been an interesting ripple effect. It turns out that before her own election, Judge Santino briefly served as a campaign manager to another Palm Beach County judge, Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo. In light of this fact, Gregg Lerman (Santino’s former opponent) asked Judge Caracuzzo to recuse herself from all cases in which he was representing a party. Judge Caracuzzo agreed.

Although requested by Lerman, the recusal now makes things more complicated for his practice. There are fewer judges available to his clients, which may lead to more delays in the administration of justice.

All involved insist that there are no hard feelings about the earlier campaign. But judicial elections have these sort of ancillary (and ultimately predictable) effects. At minimum, a lawyer in Mr. Lerman’s shoes might think twice before seeking a judicial position in the future.