Judicial independence

  • November 21, 2013
    Guest Post
    by Meagan S. Sway, Associate, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
     
    On Monday, Justice Sotomayor illuminated what many Alabama defendants and their lawyers have long known: the closer it gets to election season, the less the Sixth and Eighth Amendments matter in capital cases. While only Justice Breyer joined Justice Sotomayor’s dissent, the practice of granting elected judges power to override jury sentences in capital cases should trouble all nine justices, as Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme undermines our entire justice system.
     
    While a majority of the justices do not appear to accept that Alabama’s sentencing scheme violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, the defendant is not the only player who loses as a result of granting a judge the power to override a jury’s recommendation—jurors also suffer. The Supreme Court has recognized in its Batson jurisprudence that discrimination against a veniremember deprives the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to a jury and also denies the individual veniremember his “most significant opportunity to participate in the democratic process.” Powers v. Ohio (1991). Alabama’s judicial override system has the same problem. As shown in Bryan Stevenson’s mini-multiple regression analysis, there is a statistically significant relationship between a judge facing an election year and his exercise of judicial override. Thus, a person who serves on a jury, whose judge is facing an election, will see her vote count less than a person serving on a jury whose judge is not. This has the additional negative effect of causing jurors to lose faith in the system, because of the sense that whatever decision they reach it is subject to apparently arbitrary review (and potential reversal) by a judge. A juror may well ask herself, why bother?
     
    The Court should be concerned with the startling appearance of impropriety that results from Alabama’s capital sentencing scheme. Judges are – and should be – supremely concerned about guarding against any appearance of impropriety, as it undermines society’s trust and confidence in the justice system. The Second Circuit’s recent sua sponte removal of Judge Shira Scheindlin from New York City’s stop-and-frisk litigation comes to mind. There, the court removed Judge Scheindlin because she directed related cases to her docket and granted media interviews while the stop-and-frisk litigation was pending.  Judicial overrides in Alabama provide much more damning evidence of judicial impropriety: Stevenson’s analysis demonstrating an overwhelming correlation between judicial elections and overrides; 92% of all judicial overrides result in death sentences; states where judges are not elected but have the power of override do not exercise that power; and Alabama judges themselves have admitted that elections have influenced their decisions to override a jury’s recommendation of a life sentence.
  • November 12, 2013
     
    The Washington Post recently published a "Letter to the Editor" from ACS President Caroline Fredrickson, which touched on the pernicious influence of campaign contributions on state courts. 
     
    In response to a Post article citing efforts by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to push its agenda through various state courts (perhaps having realized federal courts have already been conquered), Fredrickson cited ACS’s 2013 report, Justice at Risk, which provides an empirical analysis of campaign contributions and their impact state judicial decisions. As Fredrickson noted, the data shows that “the more campaign contributions from business interests that justices receive, the more likely they are to side with business litigants.”
     
    Since its release in June, Justice at Risk has been routinely cited by media outlets across the nation, including: The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The Des Moines Register, The Miami Herald and many others.  As former Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson phrased it in the pages of The Missoulian, Justice at Risk is an “objective, non-partisan report . . . [that] provides critical data on the effect of campaign expenditures on judicial behavior from 2010-2012.”
     
    For more information on Justice at Risk, please visit the ACS State Courts Resources page on our website.
  • June 17, 2013
    Guest Post
    by Liz Seaton, Acting Executive Director, Justice at StakeJustice at Stake is a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign working to keep America’s courts fair and impartial.

    With its new “Justice at Risk” report, the American Constitution Society documents a correlation between big judicial election spending by U.S. businesses and favorable rulings from elected state courts. The report raises questions that are familiar, and they are troubling.
     
    The American public insists that courts be impartial, with no special favors for campaign spenders, so that everyone gets a fair day in court. But confidence in the impartiality of our courts has eroded as business and special interest spending on judicial elections soared in the last decade.
     
    “Justice at Risk” offers a statistical analysis that updates what we know about business interest donations to state supreme court candidates and judicial decisions that followed, specifically in the years since Citizens United:
     

    - “The more campaign contributions from business interests justices receive, the more likely they are to vote for business litigants appearing before them in court.”

    - If a justice’s campaign gets half of its contributions from business groups, then the justice would be expected to favor business interests by voting their way almost two-thirds of the time.

    - The empirical relationship identified in the study between campaign contributions and justices’ voting exists “only in partisan and nonpartisan systems; there is no statistically significant relationship between money and voting in retention election systems,” when a justice stands in a yes-or-no contest with no opponent.

    - For justices affiliated with the Democratic Party, the relationship between business contributions and voting is stronger than for justices affiliated with the GOP.

     
    These results add to the debate about the critical need for reforms to keep the influence of campaign cash out of the courtroom.
     
  • June 5, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The federal appeals court judge under an ethics investigation for allegedly making racist comments at a Federalist Society event has been building a rather tawdry track record on and off the bench. The ethics complaint lodged by civil rights groups against Judge Edith H. Jones of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Fifth Circuit has become somewhat high-profile thanks to coverage from The New York Times.

    But Nicole Flatow and Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress add to the story. First Flatow notes that Jones, appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, “is known for her hostile and discriminatory comments.” Flatow continues that Jones “erupted at one of her fellow judges during oral argument in 2011, and told him to ‘shut up’ while asking him to leave the courtroom.” Flatow also notes Jones (pictured) wrote an opinion arguing for dismissal of a woman’s sexual harassment lawsuit. It was not enough that the woman’s male co-workers repeatedly groped and grabbed her and plied her locker with pornographic pictures. The woman’s supervisor dismissed her complaints and Judge Jones argued for the same thing to be done. Fortunately her opinion was in dissent. Nonetheless that dissent suggests Jones harbors an incredibly callous or cynical view of sexual harassment charges.

    Millhiser in a separate post expounds on Jones’ ethically suspect behavior and wobbly jurisprudence. Millhiser writes that Jones “joined an opinion holding that a capital defendant could be executed despite the fact that his lawyer slept through much of his trial. Though that opinion was eventually reversed by the full Fifth Circuit, Jones dissented from that reversal.”

    The Texas Civil Rights Project, Austin NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program lodged the ethics complaint against Jones arguing that her comments at a Federalist Society event at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law violated the Judicial Conduct & Disability Act. That code of conduct, in part, requires judges to remain impartial.

    The event was not recorded, according to the law school, but the complaint includes affidavits from members of the gathering. The Times’ Ethan Bronner reports that the groups’ complaint says Jones declared, “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime.”

    When prodded on that comment by a lawyer in the audience, Jones allegedly added that blacks and Latinos “get involved in more violent crime.”

    Jones, the complaint alleges, expressed incredibly base comments about death penalty defenses. Most of them, such as claims of racism, are “red herrings,” The Times reports. According to the newspaper witnesses added that the judge maintained “Mexicans would prefer to be on death row in the United States than in prison in Mexico.”

  • May 6, 2013

    by John Schachter

    Lest anyone still doubt corporate influence (or is it control?) over the nation’s high court, Adam Liptak’s nearly 3,000-word article in yesterday’s New York Times should resolve any uncertainties. The Court’s business rulings, Liptak notes, “have been, a new study finds, far friendlier to business than those of any court since at least World War II. In the eight years since Chief Justice Roberts joined the court, it has allowed corporations to spend freely in elections in the Citizens United case, has shielded them from class actions and human rights suits, and has made arbitration the favored way to resolve many disputes.”

    The latest report, published in April in The Minnesota Law Review, looks far beyond cursory glances and anecdotal examples, studying 2,000 court decisions over a 65-year-period ending in 2011. “The study ranked the 36 justices who served on the court over those 65 years by the proportion of their pro-business votes; all five of the current court’s more conservative members were in the top 10,” Liptak notes. “But the study’s most striking finding was that the two justices most likely to vote in favor of business interests since 1946 are the most recent conservative additions to the court, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., both appointed by President George W. Bush.”

    Before right-wing skeptics criticize the latest report as biased propaganda, we should note that the authors who prepared the report – Lee Epstein, a USC professor of law and political science; William M. Landes, an economist at the University of Chicago; and Judge Richard A. Posner, of the federal appeals court in Chicago, who teaches law at the University of Chicago – are no one’s idea of a leftist cabal.

    This study, meanwhile, comes on the heels of a new report by the Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) that found that the Supreme Court continues to hear more cases involving business interests and “that the Chamber [of Commerce] continues to win the vast majority of its cases pending before the Roberts Court.” ACS’s own Jeremy Leaming took a look at this report and the broader issue just four days ago in a post for ACSblog.