Fair Courts E-lert: CA Governor Has Record of Diverse Judicial Appointments; SCOTUS Hears Recusal Case

March 4, 2016


CA Governor Appoints Judges from Diverse Legal Backgrounds

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s judicial appointments may shape the state’s criminal justice system, writes Marisa Lagos for Capitol Public Radio. Lagos reports that of Brown’s 309 judicial appointments “26 percent…have been public defenders at one point in their careers. About 14 percent were district attorneys, and a total of 31 percent had some prosecutorial background.” She notes that although direct comparison is difficult, “the sizable number of public defender appointments is a big shift from Brown’s predecessors, who largely appointed prosecutors.” According to Lagos, this “mark[s] a significant shift from the ‘tough on crime’ trends of the 1990s and early 2000s, which helped pack California’s prisons and jails far beyond capacity.” Speaking about the background of judges, Brown said: “You want judges that have a commercial background, you want judges that have a prosecutorial background, city attorneys, or county counsel, or small practice, plaintiffs’ practice — you want a diversity, instead of kind of a one note fits all.”

Opinion: Considering Diversity Is Important for SCOTUS Nomination

Former Arizona Supreme Court justice Ruth McGregor penned an op-ed for The Arizona Republic encouraging President Obama to consider diversity when making his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court to fill the vacancy left by Justice Scalia’s death last month. McGregor states that “[d]iversity on the bench strengthens America’s courts” and highlights the “positive influence that greater diversity could have on the Supreme Court’s decision-making.” Drawing on her own experiences, she recalls that “women and minority judges brought multiple viewpoints to the decision-making process” and that “an appellate court with judges of collectively broad experience tends to build its decisions on a sturdier foundation.” She writes that “[d]iverse experiences can be used in appropriate instances to allow judges to more fully analyze and understand the legal issues before them” and “can help [judges] recognize implicit bias and take conscious action to correct it.”


SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments in Recusal Case

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Williams v. Pennsylvania, concerning whether Ronald Castille, former Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court , should have stepped aside from Terrance Williams’ capital appeal. Williams argues that because Castille was the head prosecutor of the office that tried him, Castille should not have participated in his case. During arguments, the justices discussed “recusal rules that are both fair and administrable,” writes Richard M. Re for SCOTUSblog. Justice Alito said, “[t]he problem…is where this constitutional line is going to be drawn.”  Justice Breyer echoed this concern about line drawing, saying “we don’t want to have a situation where the only people who can become judges and sit on cases are people with no prior experience.” However, according to Re, other justices countered that “bright-line recusal rules exist in some jurisdictions and seem not to cause great problems.” In addition to recusal concerns, the case also raises broader questions about judicial elections. The New York Times Editorial Board writes that, “[e]ven if the court…rules that Mr. Williams’s constitutional rights were violated, that will not fix the much broader problem of elected judges.” They point to evidence that “[e]lected judges hand out longer sentences the closer they are to re-election and are less than half as likely as appointed judges to reverse death sentences.” The Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake submitted an amicus brief in support of Williams.


Current and Former PA Governors Support Merit Selection Bill

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and a bipartisan group of five former Pennsylvania governors have added their support to a proposal to move away from choosing state appellate judges in partisan elections, reports Karen Langley in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Currently, trial and appellate court judges are “selected for the bench in partisan elections and then can remain in office by winning nonpartisan retention elections.” Under the proposed constitutional amendment, the governor would “select a judge from a short list of applicants sent to him by a bipartisan nominating commission” and the senate would have to confirm the nominee. Former Republican governor Mark Schweiker, who supports the measure, said “[m]erit selection focuses on qualifications, not being a good campaigner for two years, not being a great fundraiser for five years or having a great ballot position on one day.” However, Rep. Joseph Petrarca, (D-Westmoreland) voted against the proposal because “merit selection would still be a political process.” He asked: “Is it better to have that process transparent and open and before the electorate, or is it better to have that process in the hands of a politically chosen commission?”