by Samuel Rubinstein, Strategic Engagement Fellow, American Constitution Society
As the eyes of the nation were on Alabama for the high profile special Senate election between Roy Moore and Doug Jones, the Alabama Supreme Court issued a decision that raises troubling questions of partisan decision-making by state court judges. This corrosive effect that campaign money and politics have had on impartial justice was highlighted by Partisan Justice, a recent ACS report.
At issue in Alabama was a Montgomery County Circuit Court ruling which ordered the state not to destroy digital scans of paper ballots made by voting machines. Although paper ballots are retained, plaintiffs argued that public records laws mandate that the digital scans also be kept. The scans are important, they further argued, because only digital records are tabulated in the absence of a hand-recount, and machines can be tampered with. The state argued that the requested relief would require many machines to be reset with little time before the election. Siding with plaintiffs, the lower court wrote that, “the only action being asked of [the Secretary of State] at this point is to send a communication through a system that already exists and is routinely used,” to instruct local officials. Nonetheless, the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the injunction, allowing the records to be destroyed. Ultimately, the election was decided by 1.5 percentage points, avoiding an automatic hand-recount.
Our nation has survived a sordid past from slavery to the internment of Japanese citizens. It even survived a duel between a sitting Vice President, Aaron Burr, and the former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton that resulted in the Secretary’s untimely death. President Franklin Roosevelt tried to “pack the Court” as a counter measure to the “nine old men” who threatened his New Deal legislation. The republic even lived past Watergate and a President who used the power of the office to suppress dissent.
Our Senate Judiciary nominations hearings, I believe, have become something of a joke. Nominees come to us readied for our hearings by "murder boards" that taught them how to withstand all five minutes of questioning by Senators. Nominees are often packed into panels, so a Senator’s five minutes get spread across multiple nominees. The questioning of nominees is often simple and rote. A fundamental premise in the proceedings is that there is inevitably “law” that can be impartially applied to “facts,” and there endeth the lesson.
The falsity of this premise can be shown in two words: Merrick Garland. If judging were all about impartial application of law to facts, why the desperate effort to stop the most qualified judge to be nominated to the Supreme Court in our lifetimes? Why does the Supreme Court majority of five Republican appointees rule so predictably on so many issues important to big Republican interests? Why did candidate Trump need to make a list of whom he’d appoint to the Court to get conservative backing? Why are gobs of political dark money spent by special interests to push for the confirmation of judicial nominees? All of this political behavior around judicial appointments belies the notion that it’s just about impartially applying law to facts. Yet we’re supposed to accept the pretense.
by Samuel L. Rubinstein, American Constitution Society Strategic Engagement Fellow
As attorney Jack D’Aurora persuasively argued in a recent column in the Columbus Dispatch, rampant spending and lax ethics rules have contributed to a crisis of confidence in the Ohio judiciary. According to the Brennan Center’s New Politics of Judicial Elections Report, in 2014, more than $3.2 million was spent on Ohio Supreme Court races alone, the 5th most in the nation, with more than 22% of that coming from outside groups. This isn’t new, as Ohio saw more TV ads for Supreme Court elections than any state, every year in the 2000-2009 decade.
President Donald Trump has received a lot of attention – and widespread condemnation – for his attacks on federal judges. But as Assaults on the Courts: A Legislative Roundup, a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, makes clear, Trump’s conservative allies in the states have prosecuted a far-reaching campaign to undermine state courts, strip them of their constitutionally-designated powers and deny people the rights and protections the courts are supposed to protect. That these attacks on fair and impartial courts have received so much less attention than Trump’s judge-bashing tweets makes them all the more dangerous.
Attacks on state courts are especially troubling because these courts are the only judicial bodies most American will ever encounter. State courts handle 95 percent of the nation’s judicial business, and decide cases involving vitally important issues ranging from voting rights to criminal justice to reproductive freedom and environmental protections. As a result, powerful conservative interests have flooded state court elections with money over the past decade. As a series of ACS-sponsored studies have shown, this spending undermines justice in our courts.
The Assaults on the Courts study documents the new fronts conservative interests have opened up in their war on the courts in the form of legislative actions that strips courts of their powers or the ability to do their jobs. It finds that:
This year, at least 41 bills in 15 states have targeted state courts, including efforts to control the ways by which judges reach the bench, to unseat judges currently on courts and generally to restrict courts’ jurisdiction and power. While lawmakers have employed similar tactics in the past, one new trend is a group of bills that would allow state legislatures to override or refuse to enforce court decisions, potentially undermining the role of the courts in our constitutional system. So far this year, nine such bills have been introduced in seven states.