Andrew Cohen

  • September 3, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently remarked that money flowing into campaigns for seats on state courts creates the “impression, rightly or wrongly” that judges are beholden to their campaign contributors. In a stunning interview with Andrew Cohen for a piece in The Atlantic, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett agrees that judicial campaigns do indeed undermine citizens’ expectations of fair and impartial courts.

    Cohen, a contributing editor at The Atlantic and legal analyst for “60 Minutes,” asked Willett to respond to Justice at Risk, a report issued this summer by ACS on campaign contributions to state Supreme Court justices and state court decision-making. In part the study found a significant relationship between business group contributions to state Supreme Court justices and the voting of those justices in cases involving business matters. Indeed the report found that a justice who receives half of his or her contributions from business groups would be expected to vote in favor of business interests almost two-thirds of the time. Justice at Risk also noted that because of recent opinions by the U.S. Supreme Court there is more and more money flowing into judicial campaigns via business interests.

    Cohen notes that Willett “graciously” agreed to read the report and then respond to questions about “judicial elections and the role campaign contributions play in them.” (Last year for The Atlantic, Cohen covered the Texas system for electing judges, noting Willett’s campaign-style website.) Cohen describes Willett’s comments about Justice at Risk as “both candid and frightening.”

    Willett provides a fairly lengthy response to Cohen, conceding that he strongly understands the “suspicion that donations drive decisions. That skepticism siphons public confidence, and that’s toxic to the idea of an impartial, independent judiciary. I can only speak for myself and say that it flatly doesn’t happen.”

    Willett adds that if the Texas Supreme Court issues opinions that are business friendly it is more likely the fault of Texas lawmakers. “My court doesn’t put a finger on the scale to ensure that preferred groups or causes win, but the Legislature sure does. Lawmakers are fond of lawmaking, and the business lobby exerts significant influence on state policymaking.”

    Part of Cohen’s response:

    The justice is saying that he holds his nose while he campaigns for votes by pledging to be "conservative" and by placing the endorsements of men like James Dobson and Foster Friess (and current Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott) on prominent places on his website. (How would you feel, as an atheist, with Justice Willett on your case?) And he is saying that the decidedly pro-business Texas legislature is more to blame than the decidedly pro-business Supreme Court for the decidedly pro-business bent of Texas law. They have reaped what they have sown.

    For on more about money and courts see ACS’s State Courts Resources Page.

  • April 30, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) likes to pin blame for the high vacancy rate on the federal bench on President Obama, saying he has not put forth enough nominees. Some befuddled reporters have bought and pushed Grassley’s line, or at least part of it to report that both parties are to blame in this matter.

    Grassley and others, however, should take a look at the work of Jennifer Bendery at The Huffington Post, who notes, like other honest observers of the fight over judicial nominations, that the obstruction is and always has been the product of Republican senators. A careful look at the judicial nominations process reveals, she writes, “the bigger problem is Republican senators quietly refusing to recommend potential judges in the first place.”

    Obama came into office promising to work with the other party and on judicial nominations that is what he’s attempted to do. In their 2012 book, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blast Republicans as being largely to blame for the heightened obstruction of nominations and legislation.

    Citing a study by the Alliance for Justice, “Judicial Vacancies Without Nominees,” Bendery reveals it is rather lazy to report that both parties are to blame for the ongoing strife over judicial nominations and the large number of vacancies on the federal bench. Most of the nominees to the federal bench are to the district courts and senators, Bendery notes, jumpstart that process. Senators are supposed to make “recommendations from their home states, and the president works with them to get at least some of the nominees confirmed – the idea being that senators, regardless of party, are motivated to advocate for nominees from their states.”

    The research from AFJ shows that it is largely Republicans who are stalling the process. Michelle Schwartz, director of AFJ”s Justice Programs, told Bendery, “It’s disingenuous at best for Republicans to complain about the number of judicial vacancies without nominees when Republicans themselves are responsible for the majority of those vacancies. Nearly two-thirds of the vacancies without nominees are in states with at least one Republican senator, most of whom have consistently refused to work with the White House in good faith to identify qualified candidates.”

  • October 9, 2012

    By Jeremy Leaming

    Special interests are ratcheting up their efforts to influence the make-up of state courts, which handle the bulk of the country’s legal actions. These special interests, in large part, are riled over certain rulings of state courts in Iowa, Florida and a string of others, and willing to spend boatloads of money to change those courts. 

    Recently this blog noted the 2010 effort by Christian rightists to unseat Iowa Supreme Court justices for their involvement in a 2009 opinion that invalidated a law barring same-sex marriage. (In Varnum v. Brien, the Iowa higher court said the law violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.) The effort was led by groups, such as the National Organization for Marriage, the American Family Association and other religious groups bent on demonizing the LGBT community, in part by opposing equality efforts. That effort was successful in removing three of the Iowa State Supreme Court justices, and some of those same groups are gunning for another justice involved in the Varnum majority – Justice David Wiggins. The New York Times blasted the effort to oust Wiggins in a so-called retention vote on Election Day as a “battle over the future of a fair and independent judiciary.” The Times’ editorial went on to state that retention votes were meant to remove judges from the bench because of corruption or incompetence, not because of unpopular rulings.

    In a panel discussion organized by Justice at Stake for this year’s Lavender Law conference, several of the panelists noted that state judges who have issued rulings in favor of marriage equality have often been the target of efforts to yank them from the bench. Lambda Legal’s Eric Lesh said courts nationwide “face real threats from well-funded, special interest groups that seek to politicize our judiciary and undermine the integrity of our justice system.”

    It’s not just state court opinions advancing equality that are triggering threats to state courts.

  • July 17, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Unless the U.S. Supreme Court steps in to uphold its precedent on the death penalty, Texas and Georgia will execute two men who are mentally disabled.

    Although several states over the last five years have abolished capital punishment, others such as Texas and Georgia remain seemingly oblivious to Supreme Court precedent or obstinately opposed to providing those on death row a proper hearing.

    In Texas, the nation’s most ruthless proponent of capital punishment, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has flat out refused to follow the Supreme Court’s March 2012 Martinez v. Ryan opinion, which cleared the way for federal courts to review some post-conviction habeas reviews raising ineffective counsel claims.

    Yokamon Hearn convicted and sentenced to death for kidnapping and murdering a man in Dallas was not competently represented at trial or at post-conviction proceedings. As the Texas Defender Service notes, Hearn’s trial attorneys failed to uncover and reveal at trial a slew of mitigating circumstances, such as the fact that he suffered from brain damage. During his appeals, Hearn’s new attorney’s also failed to raise the mitigating circumstances.

    Even after the high court’s opinion in Martinez, the Fifth Circuit panel, in what the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen details as a rather strained opinion found a way to shut down any further review of mitigating factors in Hearn’s case. The court, “the most stridently conservative federal appeals court in the nation” found a way “to avoid giving Hearn the relief to which he is entitled,” Cohen wrote.

    Texas Defender Service Executive Director Kathryn M. Kase notes that the full Fifth Circuit has been asked to review the panel decision, but because of the Circuit’s “history of flouting” Supreme Court rulings fears that Hearn will be executed on July 18, unless the Supreme Court intervenes.

    In the Georgia case, which Cohen also covers, Warren Hill is facing the death penalty even though, as Cohen notes, a veteran Georgia state judge has said Hill is mentally disabled.

    Again, Supreme Court precedent is in play.

  • May 15, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    With an increasing number of states dispensing with or reconsidering capital punishment, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review (HRLR) has released an exhaustive issue, which should push more state lawmakers to join the discussion. The HRLR issue provides compelling and highly troubling documentation of the likely wrongful 1989 Texas execution of Carlos DeLuna.

    As Andrew Cohen writes for the Atlantic the HRLR’s issue, “an astonishing blend of narrative journalism, legal research, and gumshoe detective work,” should be read, especially by Justice Antonin Scalia, who in a 2006 concurrence staunchly defended the integrity of capital punishment cases, saying they are “given especially close scrutiny at every level ….”

    Since being reinstituted in the United States, Texas has executed more inmates than all other states, except for California and Florida, where the death row populations are higher. In the last five years, however, five states have chosen to abolish capital punishment, with Connecticut the most recent. Californians in November will consider a ballot measure to end the death penalty.

    HRLR’s issue called Los Tocayos Carlos, provides a stunning account of a criminal justice system gone terribly awry, with prosecutors, witnesses, judges all faltering in ways that tragically bungled a capital punishment case. While these officials and actors ignored evidence to the contrary, the likely perpetrator, Carlos Hernandez, continued a life of violent crime after DeLuna was convicted and sitting on death row.

    In a press release about the report, Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman, and lead author of the issue, said, “Carlos DeLuna’s execution passed with little notice. No one cared enough about the defendant or the victim [Wanda Lopez stabbed to death working at a convenience mart in Corpus Christi] to make sure they caught the right guy. Everything that could go wrong in a death penalty case did go wrong for DeLuna. Sadly, DeLuna’s story is not unique. The very same factors that sent DeLuna to his death – faulty eyewitness testimony, shoddy legal representation, prosecutorial misfeasance – continue to put innocent people at risk of execution today.”