Impartial Courts News

Court Watchers Predict ‘Deluge’ of Recusal Requests in Light of Caperton

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

From The American Bar Association Journal, June 11, 2009:

This week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have recused himself from a case involving a party that helped fund his campaign has lawyers across the country predicting a “deluge” of recusal requests.

Read the entire article here.

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Thursday, June 11th, 2009

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Legal Reform Groups Hail Supremes’ Decision

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

The following is a press release from Justice at Stake, a legal reform advocacy group.

Organizations representing a broad swath of America’s legal community hailed today’s U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Caperton v. Massey and pledged to step up their efforts to help states insulate their courts from special-interest influence.

“This is a tremendous victory. The Supreme Court said, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign in Washington. “Today’s ruling is a critical first step. But states that elect judges must get to work now, to keep campaign cash out of our courts of law.”

James Sample, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, who authored a “friend of the court” brief in support of the petitioners, noted that, “Ted Olson and his clients earned a victory not only for themselves, but for all Americans who believe in the most basic aspect of the rule of law, the right to a fair hearing.”

Caperton v. Massey, which grew out of a case involving two West Virginia coal companies, became a widely publicized poster child for what can happen when special interests dominate the election of judges.

Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co., spent $3 million to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court in 2004 after a jury had slapped his company with a $50 million judgment for fraudulent business practices. Benjamin twice refused to recuse himself, and cast the deciding vote to overturn the jury award.

Competing coal executive Hugh Caperton argued that Benjamin’s action violated his right to a fair hearing in an impartial court, saying that the 14th Amendment due process clause required Benjamin not to rule in a case involving such a significant benefactor.

His argument was supported by an unprecedented array of groups, including 27 retired state Supreme Court justices, business organizations that included Wal-Mart, Intel, Pepsi and Lockheed-Martin, and civic reform and legal affairs groups, including the American Bar Association.

“Polls show that three Americans in four believe that campaign spending can influence courtroom decisions,” said Brandenburg, who noted that $200 million was spent on state Supreme Court elections from 2000-08, more than double the $85.4 million spent in the entire 1990s. “Without measures to keep courts fair and impartial, spending to elect judges will continue to run away, and public trust will continue to erode.”

Although most states have rules calling on judges to recuse themselves when there might be just an appearance of bias, today’s ruling is the first time that the Supreme Court has said such rules must in some cases be applied to cases of extreme election spending.

State Supreme Courts in Michigan and Wisconsin already are reviewing proposals that could redefine when judges should step aside from cases involving campaign backers.

“The arena now shifts to state Supreme Courts, which have the power to reform recusal rules to restore public confidence,” Brandenburg said. “Responsible reforms at the state level will be pursued with greater vigor than ever.”

For further information on the Caperton v. Massey case, see the Caperton resource pages at the Brennan Center for Justice and the Justice at Stake Campaign. Justice at Stake is a nonpartisan national partnership that promotes reforms to keep courts fair and impartial.

The Right Decision on a West Virginia Judge

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

An editorial in the New York Times on June 9, 2009 praised the Supreme Court for finding that a $3 million campaign contribution to a West Virginia Supreme Court Justice by a litigant with a case in front of the court amounted to a “constitutional violation.”

“The right to a fair hearing before an impartial judge, untainted by money or special interests, is at the heart of the nation’s justice system and the rule of law. That right is more secure following a 5-to-4 ruling on Monday by the United States Supreme Court,” said the Times.

Read the full editorial here.

Supremes order West Virginia judge to recuse himself

Monday, June 8th, 2009

The US Supreme Court ordered a West Virginia judge who had received $3 million in campaign contributions from a litigant to recuse himself from the litigant’s case.

Read the story here.

MN Sen. Committee approves Impartial Courts Bill; TX Chief Justice supports merit selection.

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Impartial Courts Legislative Update

We are pleased to report that the Senate State and Local Government Operations and Oversight Committee approved the Bill on March 19 after referral from the Judiciary Committee.   We are now waiting for the Bill to be considered by committees in the House.  We will apprise you of the next House committee hearing, hopefully within the next week or two.  Please contact your House representative to encourage passage of the Bill

Why not elect judges on merit, not whim?

Here is an good article about the need for a more informed judicial selection process, written by Wallace B. Jefferson, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.

Thursday, March 19, 2009   |   Dallas Morning News
02:57 PM CDT on Thursday, March 12, 2009

You don’t know who I am. I don’t blame you.

I have been on the statewide ballot three times, in 2002, 2006 and
2008. I was elected each time by impressive margins. Yet a July 2008
statewide poll found that 86 percent of the electorate had “never
heard of” me. I won because Texans voted for Rick Perry, Kay Bailey
Hutchison and John McCain.

My parents gave me a good ballot name. My beautiful wife and three
handsome sons adorned political advertisements on network television.
But these things tell you nothing about my intellect, integrity or

My success depended primarily on a straight-ticket partisan vote.

I lost Bexar County last November, although it is my home. I am the
first African-American justice and chief justice on the Texas Supreme
Court, and I am the descendant of a slave who was owned by a Texas
judge. The irony of my pedigree, however, could not secure a victory
in Harris County, where the black voter turnout reached record

I campaigned hard on merit: I have handled cases successfully in the
U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit,
and the Supreme Court of Texas. I was endorsed by every major
newspaper in Texas. They said I was fair, impartial and independent. I
was the choice of most lawyer associations. Ultimately, though, my
qualifications were not relevant.

Even if I had never appeared in court, lost every endorsement and
fared poorly in polls that assess qualifications, I would still have
won in Texas. The state voted for McCain, and I was the down-ballot

Currently, merit matters little in judicial elections. We close our
eyes and vote for judges based on party affiliation, even though a
party label does not ensure a judiciary committed to the rule of law.
We reject worthy judicial candidates whose names are hard to

The men and women we elect in this arbitrary process make decisions
that affect all of our lives. We don’t know who they are.

In a close race, the judge who solicits the most money from lawyers
and their clients has the upper hand. But then the day of reckoning
comes. When you appear before a court, you ask how much your lawyer
gave to the judge’s campaign. If the opposing counsel gave more, you
are cynical. Aren’t you entitled to a fair hearing?

We must eliminate cynicism, money and partisanship in judicial
selection. We should adopt a system for judges that has two primary
components. Judges should achieve office by merit rather than whim,
and voters should hold judges accountable, based on their records,
through subsequent retention elections.

For the foreseeable future, I will win elections not because I am best
suited for the job, but in spite of my qualifications. When a judge’s
victory is based on party over principle, money over merit, cynicism
over the rule of law, voters lose.

Let’s change the system so that the law governs neutrally. What more
can we ask of democracy?

Wallace B. Jefferson is chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.

Could Minnesota Voters Fire Judges?

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Could Minnesota Judges Fire Voters? Senate panel ok’s retention elections. St. Paul Pioneer PRess.

New local editorials about impartial courts

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

StarTribune on February 26, 2009
Act on judicial elections this year: Retention elections discourage special-interest involvement

St. Paul Pioneer Presson February 26, 2009
How to sustain a qualified, impartial judiciary

MinnPost on February 20, 2009
Judicial reform: a move to insulate Minnesota from a national trend toward bare-knuckle politics in judicial elections

Roger Moe’s Letter in the StarTribune on February 19, 2009
Politicizing Judges: we can’t let it happen here

Commentary - Eric Magnuson: ‘Politics, judicial work don’t mix’

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

The new Minnesota Chief Justice, Eric Magnuson, sat down with Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevant to discuss his first state of the judiciary address.  Below is a short quote from the article:

Q A lot of people say Minnesota has good judges now, and “if it isn’t broke, why fix it?”

A There’s no perfect answer [for shielding judicial selection from special-interest and partisan politics]. But if you think there’s not a problem, then you are sticking your head in the sand.

You just look at Wisconsin — right next door, and awful. The last contested election for the state supreme court was everything that we’ve been saying could never happen here. Special-interest groups, attack ads, one-issue campaign themes, really, really brutal. It’s what we want to avoid here.

Read the complete article here:

Here are some other related articles

Chief justice calls for more money for courts system (MPR)-

Chief justice fears negative, expensive judicial elections (WCCO) -–ChiefJustice-Elec.xml

Duluth News Tribune - Chief justice says Minnesota courts face uphill climb

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

By Mark Stodghill
Duluth News Tribune

Maintaining an impartial judiciary and providing justice to its citizens despite being underfunded by about $19 million are the biggest challenges the state courts face, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said during his State of the Judiciary address Tuesday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

Magnuson was appointed chief justice by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and was sworn in on June 3. He presented the address before about 100 people at the Minnesota State Bar Association annual convention.

He loosened up his audience by saying: “I’ve learned that the chief justice’s job is 50 percent deciding cases, 50 percent administration and 50 percent PR. That’s why there are so few math majors that take this job.’

There wasn’t much humor in the rest of his message. Far from it.

The chief justice said funding for the state courts is a serious challenge. He compared it to a hospital room, “where we would close the door, look each other in the eye, and soberly walk through our options.”

Magnuson said the courts will be operating with 7 percent of staff positions unfilled, resulting in fewer people doing more work. There will be case processing delays and civil cases are going to be delayed, he said. Hours of public service windows will be shortened in some places. Cuts to public defender budgets will slow down criminal case processing.

“We can’t allow the next legislative session to be a repeat of the last one; we can’t sustain further cuts,” he said. “We need to fund our basic employee costs. We have to pay our people what they deserve. We have to give them enough help so that they can get the work done. … Our goal in the next legislative session must be to secure the resources needed to perform our constitutionally mandated function.”

The judicial branch is now fully funded by the state, as opposed to individual counties, and has about 3,000 employees at 99 locations.

Impartial judges

Magnuson said he supports a system in which the governor selects judges based on merit, and then “retention elections” and public performance evaluations are held as a way to ensure an impartial judiciary.

Currently in Minnesota, judges run for election every six years and can be challenged by anyone learned in law. In a retention election, judges do not have opponents. Instead, voters decide whether to retain a judge in office. If a judge receives a simple majority of “yes” votes, the judge may serve another term.

Magnuson said the last Wisconsin Supreme Court election should cause deep concerns for those who want an impartial judiciary.

“Millions of dollars were spent by special interest groups on ads attacking the candidates as freeing criminals or engaging in political cronyism,” Magnuson said of the April election. “Well-heeled special interests attempting to manipulate the judicial process are no longer the stuff of fictional thrillers written by John Grisham. It’s reality. It’s reality that’s right next door.”

Magnuson, whose parents are from Duluth, was a lawyer for 30 years and was chairman of the Judicial Selection Commission for five years.

St. Cloud lawyer Mike Ford, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, said the two most important parts of Magnuson’s address for the public to know is that the judiciary’s goal in Minnesota is to remain nonpolitical and to keep adequate funding in place.

When told that there’s been no evidence of the judiciary in Northeastern Minnesota becoming politicized, Ford said: “That’s the prevailing view. I see it as the Lake Wobegon conceit. We have this notion that since we’re Minnesota that it just can’t happen here, and yet, in states with very good judges and very good lawyers, it does happen.”

MARK STODGHILL covers public safety and courts. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5333 or by e-mail at