Fair Courts E-lert: DE Death Penalty Struck Down; Latino Voters Challenge TX High Court Elections

August 5, 2016

DEATH PENALTY

DE Death Penalty Statute Struck Down

The Delaware Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state’s current death penalty law is unconstitutional, writes Randall Chase with the Associated Press. According to Chase, the court ruled the law violates the constitution because “it allows a judge to sentence a person to death independently of a jury’s recommendation.” The law allows “a judge, independently of the jury, to find the existence of one or more aggravating circumstances weighing in favor of the death penalty and…does not require jurors to be unanimous in deciding whether any aggravating circumstances exist.” The law also “allows the judge, not the jury, to make the crucial final determination on whether aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating factors, thus mandating a death sentence.” Justice James Vaughn Jr., wrote a dissent in which he distinguished Delaware’s law from a similar Florida statute struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, noting that “a person in Delaware is not eligible for the death penalty until and unless a jury finds unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt the existence of at least one specific statutory aggravating factor.” The court struck down the law in its entirety, writing that “any decision about reinstating the death penalty should be left to the General Assembly.”

STATE JUDICIAL SELECTION

Latino Voters Challenge Election Method in Texas

A group of Latino voters has filed a lawsuit alleging that the current election system for Texas’ highest courts violates the Voting Rights Act, writes Andrew Schneider for Houston Public Media. Currently, judges on the nine-member Court of Criminal Appeals and the Supreme Court of Texas, which are the two highest courts in the state, are “chosen in at-large, partisan elections. “ According to Schneider, “there are only two Hispanic judges on those top two courts, one on each, even though Latino citizens make up more than a quarter of Texas’ voting age population.” Jose Garza, who filed the suit, explained that “the state’s current method of electing judges violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting Latinos’ voting power,” highlighting that “in the last couple of decades, every candidate that has been the choice of Latino voters has lost.” Schneider writes that “[t]he suit aims to replace the at-large system with one that elects judges by single-member geographic districts.”

Groups Spend in WA Supreme Court Primary

The election for the 5th position on the Washington Supreme Court has seen spending by groups and political action committees, writes Austin Jenkins for Northwest Public Radio. According to Jenkins, former Washington Senate majority leader Rodney Tom and billionaire Ken Fisher have “teamed in an effort to unseat the chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court.” He reports that “Tom formed and Fisher funded a new political action committee called Judicial Integrity Washington” which has “spent $100,000 on radio ads for Kittitas County Prosecutor Greg Zempel,” who is challenging Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. Tom cited “recent court decisions striking down charter schools and two-thirds for tax hikes and upholding a $15 per hour minimum wage for Sea-Tac Airport workers” as motivation for this effort. Zempel also received support from pro-charter school group Stand For Children, which “reports spending nearly $130,000 on pro-Zempel pre-primary internet ads and canvassing phone calls in advance of the August primary election.” Justice Madsen said she “finds it concerning that this amount of money is being spent on a non-partisan judicial race.” Jenkins notes that, thus far, “independent expenditures in this Supreme Court race have outpaced spending by the candidates by a margin of more than seven to one.”

PA Supreme Court to Hear Ballot Question Challenge

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear an expedited challenge to the wording of a ballot question on the state’s judicial retirement age, filed by two former state Supreme Court justices, writes Kathy Boccella for Philly.com. Former Justices Ronald Castille and Stephen Zappala Sr. argue that a change to the ballot question language is “’deceitful’ because it implied that voters would be imposing a term limit on judges instead of extending their possible time on the bench by five years.” The ballot question originally included the current retirement age of 70 years and the proposed extension to 75 years. The changes shortened this language to simply read: “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and magisterial district judges be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?” The last minute changes were made because “some lawmakers…thought the original wording was cumbersome and confusing.” However, Sen. Daylin Leach (D -Montgomery) has argued the revision is “a veiled attempt to protect [republican Chief Justice] Saylor,” who turns 70 at the end of this year.