Justice at Stake

  • 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.
  • April 5, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Leave it to The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board to attack what may be the most rational approach in this country for selecting judges in favor of an approach that leaves the judiciary vulnerable to the same kind of unspoken quid pro quo influence that plagues the political branches of government.

    Missouri has long had one of the one of the best non-partisan judicial appointment plans in the country. Under the plan, which has since been adopted at least partially by 34 states, a non-partisan commission (usually with close ties to the state bar) reviews candidates for a judicial vacancy, and produces a list of people from which the governor can make an appointment. If the governor doesn’t make an appointment, the selection committee can put a judge on the bench itself. The only popular “check” on the process is a retention election that is typically held once the judge has completed one year of service.

    The main criticism of this method of selecting judges is that it gives state bar associations, and plaintiff’s lawyers in particular, too much power in the nominations process, while voters effectively have no input on the people who will take the bench. This argument has been the clarion call of the Journal, and it was brought up again in this recent editorial, with the outrageous claim that Pennsylvania’s recent moves to become the latest state to adopt the Missouri Plan amounted to “the political class … using a political scandal to grab more power.”

    Predictably, the Journal glossed over the nature of the scandal prompting Pennsylvania to consider switching from its current system of elections for judges – one of the biggest in the state’s history. It resulted in the resignation of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, after she was found guilty of using state employees to run her reelection campaign. One of her sisters, a former state Senator, is already serving prison time after pleading guilty to using state employees to work on her own and Melvin’s campaigns, then forging documents to cover it up.

  • August 27, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers may help push equality measures for LGBT persons, but at the end of the day if the state and federal courts are made up of rightwing jurists and those beholden to corporate interests, advancements toward equality will likely be an ongoing arduous and fitful slog.

    The health and safety of the LGBT community is “inextricably tied to the health and safety and vigor of our court systems, both federal and state,” said Justice at Stake’s Praveen Fernandes, at an Aug. 24 panel discussion at the National LGBT Bar Association’s 2012 Lavender Law gathering in Washington, D.C. Fernandes, the Director of Federal Affairs and Diversity Initiatives at Justice at Stake, noted that many people concentrate on the role federal courts occupy in legal battles, but that the “vast majority” of law is determined at the state level.

    And on the state level there is an increasing challenge to ensure that judges are independent of special interests. Thirty-nine states elect judges, and an increasing amount of money is flowing into those elections to elect judges inclined to advance corporate interests at the cost to individual rights. Several of the panelists participating in the “Defending the Courts: Why the LGBT Community Should be Particularly Concerned about the Strength and Independence of the Bench,” also noted that judges who uphold or bolster rights for the LGBT community are vulnerable to well-funded efforts to remove them from the bench.

    Judge Mary Celeste of the Denver County Court highlighted one of the more infamous efforts to punish judges who supported equality. 

    “We are talking about defending people who are supportive of LGBT issues. Now is anyone here not aware of what happened in Iowa,” Celeste said, referring to the successful effort to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were involved in a 2009 state court ruling that supported same-sex marriages. 

    The effort to oust the three Iowa Supreme Court justices was spearheaded by the American Family Association, a Christian lobbying group, and attracted $948.355 from out-of-state groups. In late 2010 former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee applauded the effort to remove the Iowa Supreme Court justices, claiming that Iowans were “sick of one branch of government thinking it is more powerful than the other two put together,” the Iowa Independent reported.

  • August 24, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The U.S. Department of Justice has made historic strides in bettering lives of the LGBT community through efforts to promote equality, but Attorney General Eric Holder told an Aug. 23 gathering of the National LGBT Bar Association in Washington, D.C. that he needs the continued involvement, support and passion of its members and other advocates of equality to continue the “momentum.”

    Providing the keynote address at the LGBT Bar Association’s 2012 Annual Lavender Law Conference, Holder did not reveal any new information regarding the DOJ’s efforts to protect the rights and advance equality for LGBT persons, or announce any new initiatives. In an election year that’s hardly surprising, and for this audience, it really did not matter.

    So reciting the DOJ’s and the administration’s well covered efforts was enough for this crowd and sufficient to illicit rounds of ongoing applause. In a speech less than 30 minutes, Holder breezed through the Obama administration’s pro-equality work and provided plaudits for individual lawyers and advocates fighting to advance equality. (See C-SPAN video of Holder's address below the break.)

    “We come together tonight at an exciting moment; thanks to the tireless work of advocates and attorneys in and far beyond this room, our nation has made great strides on the road to LGBT equality and the unfinished struggle to secure civil rights of all Americans,” Holder said. “We can all be proud today,” he continued, “that for the first time in history those who courageously serve this country need no longer hide their sexual orientation. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ it is worth celebrating the fact that so many brave souls can serve proudly, honorably, honestly, openly and without fear of discharge.”

    Pivoting quickly to another administration action, Holder reminded the audience at the Washington Hilton that the DOJ no longer defends a major, and onerous provision of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, the anti-gay measure signed into law by former President Bill Clinton. (It took awhile for the administration to stop defending the blatantly bigoted law for the executive branch has a tradition of defending the constitutionality of acts of Congress.)

    “We can also take pride in the fact that last year, President Obama and I directed the Justice Department not to defend the constitutionality of Sec. 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act,” Holder said. “Since then we’ve seen an increasing and encouraging number of courts hold this provision unconstitutional.”

  • January 7, 2011
    The effort in Iowa to oust state Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage did not end last fall at the ballot box when voters removed three of the justices who supported equality, writes Bert Brandenburg in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

    Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, notes that organizers behind the campaign against the Iowa justices have "vowed to impeach and remove the court's four remaining justices, who weren't up for election in November."

    Brandenburg continues:

    The debate may have started over same-sex marriage, but the specter of impeachment has transformed it into an assault on constitutional government. Impeaching judges to redress political grievances would trigger a political circus that would paralyze government and undermine courts. Witch hunts against judges could also threaten state economies by driving out investments that create jobs, since businesses count on stable courts to settle disputes.

    But there are deeper reasons why Iowans and Americans elsewhere need to catch their breath and avoid waging war on the courts.

    Impeachments of judges were not designed as a tool for this kind of political disagreement, and the reason is essential to our democracy. If courts can't make tough calls, they won't be able to uphold the Constitution and protect our rights.