Judicial independence

  • February 22, 2017
    Guest Post

    *This piece originally appeared on The Hill

    by Sen. Patrick Leahy

    The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist once described the independent judiciary as “one of the crown jewels of our system of government.” That is because the judiciary, insulated by life tenure from elections, can provide a necessary check on the other two branches of government and uphold the constitutional rights of all Americans.

    Now the independent federal judiciary is under attack by a president who seems intent on precipitating a constitutional crisis. President Trump’s attacks on a sitting federal judge reveal the misguided notion that judges owe some allegiance to the president who appointed them or to a political party. Yet these attacks also underscore exactly why the independent judiciary is such a crucial part of our system of government.

    Judges do not consider tweets, they consider the facts and the law. And based on the facts in front of them, federal judges have found President Trump’s immigration order is very likely discriminatory and unconstitutional. As even members of the judiciary have noted, there is nothing wrong with criticizing the rulings of any court, including the Supreme Court. But it is another thing entirely to attack a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed judge’s legitimacy, or to attack another based on his heritage. Such attacks reveal a profound disregard for constitutional checks and balances, which preserve the rights of all Americans.

    Now the Senate is asked to consider the very first judicial nominee appointed by President Trump, who in his first few weeks showed an outright hostility toward the judiciary. I had hoped that President Trump would work in a bipartisan way to pick a mainstream nominee like Merrick Garland and bring the country together. Instead, he promised to pick a nominee who would overturn Roe v. Wade and deprive women of the right to make their own health care choices and then outsourced his selection process to far-right interest groups. These groups receive significant funding from the Koch brothers and other conservative donors. Americans deserve a justice who will apply the law, not the ideology of a few wealthy mega-donors.

  • February 7, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Adam Shah. Shah worked for D.C. nonprofits on issues related to the Supreme Court nominations of John Roberts, Harriet Miers, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

    Over the weekend, President Trump went on a 2-day-long Twitter rampage against a Seattle-based federal judge who halted his executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations. Commentators have decried Trump for singling out a lone federal judge for attack, calling it an attack on the independence of the federal judiciary. This is true, but our federal judges are strong, life-tenured and can withstand harsh criticism without losing their commitment to making decisions based on law, not political considerations. 

    What should cause us worry, however, is the implications of Trump's attacks for his judicial nominees, including his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch. If Trump is so easily angered by a judicial ruling that blocks one of his orders, what is likely the most important criterion Trump has for his judicial nominees? Loyalty. 

    This, of course, is the worst litmus test a president could have. Presidents may not like it, but they know that their own nominees will rule against their actions at times; Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor did it to President Obama. Having federal judges who will stand up to even the president that appointed them is one of the hallmarks of our judicial system, and that independence would be destroyed if a president picked nominees based on their unwillingness to do that. 

  • January 30, 2015

     
    Five years after the Supreme Court in Citizens United struck down restrictions on corporate spending in elections, the American political landscape has become one where influence can be bought and the voices of wealthy donors drown out other perspectives. 

    Almost immediately after the Citizens United decision, outside spending in elections spiked.  Over the next five years, it more than doubled.  Super PACs used hefty budgets to produce attack ads against candidates who were not to their liking—affecting outcomes in not only political races, but also in state judicial elections. 

    Judges perceived as being unfriendly to PACs’ interests were attacked under the pretense of being “soft on crime,” resulting in measurably harsher treatment of criminal defendants by state supreme court justices.  Further, the last five years have seen a flood of dark money into elections.  As many commentators have noted, donor secrecy breeds mistrust and, possibly, corruption.

    Americans expect the courts to be fair and impartial, but as special interest groups spend more and more money to influence courts, public faith in these institutions is waning.  Soon, the Supreme Court will have to decide how important judicial independence is to our justice system in Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, a case that could, if wrongly decided, further diminish public trust in the courts.  For those concerned about Citizens United, Williams-Yulee, or the corrosive impact of unrestrained special interest spending on our democracy, see the following ACS resources:

    Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, Joanna Shepherd and Michael S. Kang

    Five Years Later, Citizens United Wreaks Havoc on Our Democracy, Fred Wertheimer, ACSblog

    The Top Five Myths About the Democracy For All Amendment, John Bonifaz, ACSblog

    Supreme Court Briefing: Williams-Yulee vs. The Florida Bar, Video

    Interview with Professor Tracey George on Williams-Yulee, Video

    Democracy and Our State Courts: Fighting Back After Citizens United, Video

     

  • October 24, 2014

    by David Lyle

    Earlier this week, ACS issued a groundbreaking report looking into the influence money, and in particularly, the television attack ads it buys in state judicial elections, has on rulings by state judges. The report, Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising, and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases, is a compilation of data from over 3,000 criminal appeals decided in state supreme courts in 32 states from 2008 to 2013 and the findings might surprise you.

    The explosion in spending on television attack advertisements in state supreme court elections accelerated by the Citizens United decision has made courts less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals. State supreme court justices, already the targets of sensationalist ads labeling them “soft on crime,” are under increasing pressure to allow electoral politics to influence their decisions, even when fundamental rights are at stake.

    Citizens United (which removed regulatory barriers to corporate electioneering) has fundamentally changed the politics of state judicial elections. Outside interest groups, often with high-stakes economic interests or political causes before the courts, now routinely pour millions of dollars into state supreme court elections. These powerful interests understand the important role that state supreme courts play in American government, and seek to elect justices who will rule as they prefer on priority issues such as environmental and consumer protections, marriage equality, reproductive choice and voting rights. Although their economic and political priorities are not necessarily criminal justice policy, these sophisticated groups understand that “soft on crime” attack ads are often the best means of removing from office justices they oppose.

    This study’s two principal findings:

  • 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.