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.

Senate Republicans alter blue slip process for two judicial nominees

Back in May, Senate Republicans openly mulled reforming the “blue slip” process to allow a federal judicial nominee to advance to a vote even if one home-state senator opposed the nomination. Now that reform is set to take place for two Court of Appeals nominees, David Stras of Minnesota and Kyle Duncan of Louisiana.

Debates over the blue slip process always feature some of the worst hypocrisy in the Senate, with the party in power (here led by Sen. Charles Grassley) waxing poetic about the Senate’s obligation to give every candidate a fair vote and the opposition party (here led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein) cynically urging that the president’s nominees are all dangerous extremists.

Imagine if other organizations had to rely entirely on outsiders to staff their core positions.

Tweeting Judges, Revisited

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who rose to fame in social media circles for his active and vibrant use of Twitter, was deemed “well-qualified” for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by the American Bar Association earlier this week. Perhaps appropriately, the decision was tweeted out by another prominent member of the state court Twitterati, Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Dillard.

Justice Willett has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and was a very active tweeter before his federal judicial nomination drove him to stay off the platform, at least temporarily. But he is no longer a rare exception to the rule that active judges stay off of social media. Chief Judge Dillard has more than 11,000 followers, and tweets several times a day, mostly on general legal issues.  He is joined by many other judges around the country with active Twitter accounts.

The legal profession has always been uneasy with judges engaging social media. David Lat took a look at this in 2014, concluding that the judicial use of Twitter to educate the public about the work of the courts was entirely appropriate, and that “judges just need to exercise sound judgment.”

The social media landscape has only grown in the ensuing three years, and the question is worth another look.  Is the judicial use of Twitter humanizing or harmful?

Continue reading “Tweeting Judges, Revisited”

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”

Twelve-year old federal court vacancy in North Carolina one small step closer to being filled

Since 2005, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina has had an open seat, the product of partisan bickering in the Senate. George W. Bush nominated attorney Thomas Farr for the seat in 2006, but Senate Democrats failed to process the nomination.  Barack Obama subsequently nominated two different women to the seat during his presidency, but both nominations were blocked by Senate Republicans.  Now Donald Trump has come full circle, re-nominating Farr for the same seat.  And despite deep opposition by Democrats, Farr’s nomination advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday on a straight party-line vote.

It’s unclear who benefits from this partisan rancor, but it is very clear who loses: the courts and the public. For a dozen years since Judge John Malcolm took senior status, the Eastern District has been down an active district judge. Given that the district is only authorized to have four active judges, the court has been operating at only three-quarters capacity for more than a decade — and through no fault of its own.

I have no opinion on whether Mr. Farr is the right man for the job. But the public should reject as outlandish that the seat was not filled by someone long ago.

 

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.