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.

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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.

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.

Ohio Justice apologizes but refuses to quit court after Facebook fiasco

Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill, who is serving on the court while simultaneously running for the governorship as a Democrat, made news again this past weekend with a Facebook post in which he claimed to have 50 lovers over the past century, and described two trysts in detail. The since-deleted post read in part:

“Now that the dogs of war are calling for the head of Senator Al Franken I believe it is time to speak up on behalf of all heterosexual males…. In the last fifty years I was sexually intimate with approximately 50 very attractive females. It ranged from a gorgeous personal secretary to Senator Bob Taft (Senior) who was my first true love and we made passionate love in the hayloft of her parents barn in Gallipolis and ended with a drop dead gorgeous red head who was a senior advisor to Peter Lewis at Progressive Insurance in Cleveland.”

As the kids today like to say, OMG.

Everyone is rightly horrified by this post, with some of the harshest criticism coming from those within O’Neill’s own party, and from the court itself. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said in a statement, “I condemn in no uncertain terms Justice O’Neill’s Facebook post. No words can convey my shock. This gross disrespect for women shakes the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”

O’Neill issued an apology on Facebook on Sunday morning, stating: “There comes a time in everyone’s life when you have to admit you were wrong. It is Sunday morning and i [sic] am preparing to go to church and get right with God.”

Notwithstanding the apology, O’Neill faces calls for him to resign from the court and end his gubernatorial campaign. His campaign manager has already resigned. But O’Neill insists that he will stay on the court, and will only leave the governor’s race if former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray jumps in.

The people of Ohio deserve much, much better than this.

EU to Romania and Bulgaria: Not enough progress on judicial reform

This week, the European Commission issued its latest reports on the justice systems of two EU member states, Romania and Bulgaria. Both states have made slow progress in positively reforming their judicial systems, but  the Commission concluded that in both states, momentum for reform was lost in 2017.

Both countries have tried to put a positive spin on the report, noting they still have work to do. But they will be under renewed pressure to move closer to the Commission’s anti-corruption and transparency goals, especially in light of the significant threats to judicial independence that emerged in neighboring Poland earlier this year. The Commission’s mandate to monitor reform in both countries expires in 2019.

The full Commission reports can be found here.

 

Venezuelan judge seeks refugee status in Canada

The swirling political and financial chaos in Venezuela has been closely coupled with the ongoing desecration of judicial independence by President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.

Now the evidence of that desecration is starting to gush out.  Toronto’s Globe and Mail has published a story on Venezuelan judge Ralenis Tovar, who fled to Canada with her family in July and is now claiming refugee status there. Judge Tovar alleges that as a judge in Caracas, she was forced to sign arrest warrants for Maduro’s political enemies.  She further claims that the Maduro government tapped her phones and even attempted to kidnap her daughter from school.

From the Globe and Mail interview:

On her way home from work on Feb. 12, 2014, Ms. Tovar received a series of phone calls from an unknown number. Assuming it was an inmate, she didn’t answer. Then the president of Venezuela’s Supreme Court phoned and told her to pick up the calls. She did and was told to head back to the office.

Ms. Tovar said the court was surrounded by the National Guard and military intelligence officers when she arrived. She was greeted by four public prosecutors, who guarded her office’s door as she sat down.

She was given a folder with three arrest warrants inside. She said she didn’t recognize the first two names, but was shocked when she read the name on the third warrant: Leopoldo Lopez.

“I felt petrified because internally I knew what was the purpose of that warrant, which was to silence a political leader who was an obstacle for President Maduro,” Ms. Tovar said.

Given that it was 2 a.m., Ms. Tovar asked the prosecutors if she could review the warrant the next day. She said they laughed sarcastically and told her that if she didn’t sign it, she would end up like Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a Venezuelan judge who was allegedly raped in prison in 2010.

Terrified, Ms. Rovar signed Mr. Lopez’s arrest warrant.

Judicial independence and political freedom go hand in hand.  When one erodes, the other cannot be far behind.

Ohio Supreme Court Justice (finally) agrees to recuse himself from all new cases in light of pending gubernatorial run

Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill, who last week publicly announced his intent to run for governor, has now announced that he will recuse himself from all new cases coming before the Court. O’Neill previously indicated that he would continue to hear new cases, a position which drew considerable criticism from the state auditor.

O’Neill is currently the sole Democrat holding statewide office in Ohio. He has said that he will remain on the Court until he formally enters the race in February. In the meantime, he will campaign and raise money for his gubernatorial run.

Justice O’Neill may be legally permitted to campaign for governor while still on the bench. In a series of cases over the past decade, the Supreme Court has affirmed the First Amendment rights of judges to solicit campaign funds and publicly state their general positions on policy issues. But First Amendment rights do not parallel professional responsibilities, and running a political campaign from the bench can do untold damage to the judiciary’s legitimacy.  Justice O’Neill is free to seek another elected job, but he should resign from his current one first.