Fair Courts E-lert: Davis, Chafin to Face Republicans in Supreme Court Race

May 14, 2012
State Judicial Elections

1.            Incumbent Justice Robin Jean Davis and attorney Letitia Chafin captured the Democratic nominations for West Virginia Supreme Court last week. In November, they will face Republican nominees John Yoder, a circuit court judge, and Allen Loughry, a Charleston lawyer, who both ran unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.  While the high level of spending by the candidates vying for the state’s high court caught media attention—the Charleston State Journal  reported that the 6 Democratic candidates spent almost $1.5 million through mid-April—according to the Journal, “the real race is just about to begin.”

Andrea Lannom, Davis, Chafin to Face Republicans in Supreme Court Race, The State Journal, May 09, 2012; Ry Rivard, Davis, Chafin Win Democratic Primary for Supreme Court, Charleston Daily Mail, May 8, 2012.

2.            In a Detroit News commentary, Andrew Doctorof, a member of Michigan’s Judicial Selection Task Force, discusses why the Task Force report issued last week recommended reforms of Michigan Supreme Court elections.  According to Doctorof, Michigan’s system of electing justices must be reformed because “the public's faith that our judiciary is independent is challenged on many fronts. Candidates for the Michigan Supreme Court must win nominations from party convention delegates — even though their names appear on the nonpartisan portion of the ballot. And in recent years, spending on judicial campaigns by political parties and special interest groups has skyrocketed.”  Doctoroff also notes that more comprehensive disclosure laws and better public education are among the report’s suggestions, which he describes as “a blueprint for better judicial elections.”

Andrew S. Doctorof, Commentary: A Blueprint to Better Judicial Elections, Detroit News, May 8, 2012.

Diversity on the Bench

3.            Last Monday the Senate confirmed three pending judicial nominees.  U.S. District Judge Jacqueline Nguyen was confirmed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, attorney John Z. Lee was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and Kristine Baker to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. While Judge Nguyen became the first Vietnamese American and first Asian-Pacific woman to serve on a federal appeals court, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article, Judge Lee became the first Korean-American to serve as a federal district judge in Illinois and the second Korean-American to serve as a federal judge in the United States, according to the Chicago Tribune. President Barack Obama, speaking at the 18th Annual Gala for the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, highlighted the historic significance of these nominations, noting that “over the past three years, we have more than doubled the number of Asian Americans on the federal bench.”

Daniel Strauss, Senate Confirms Last Three of 14 Judicial Nominees, The Hill, May 7, 2012; Bob Egelko, Jacqueline Nguyen Confirmed for 9th Circuit Court, San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 2012; Bob Goldsborough, Federal Judge Candidate Confirmed, Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2012.

Merit Selection

4.            In a paper released by the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, Omaha attorney Steve Grasz proposed changes to Nebraska’s system of judicial selection. Grasz noted that while the state’s merit selection plan has isolated the judiciary from pitfalls of contested elections, critics nonetheless claim that “Nebraska’s judicial selection system is still fraught with politics.”  Accordingly, Grasz offered several reform proposals to make the process more transparent, such as requiring the commission to make public the votes on which candidates are sent to the governor for consideration.

Martha Stoddard, Call to Reform Judicial Selection Process, Omaha World-Herald, May 8, 2012.

Attacks on the Judiciary

5.            As last week’s E-lert reported, the three Iowa Supreme Court Justices who were ousted in the 2010 judicial retention vote were awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for their “political courage.” Meanwhile, the Iowa Family Policy Center, a group that campaigned in 2010 for the judges’ removal, announced it will also work to remove Justice David Wiggins this year for his participation in the unanimous 2009 ruling that permitted same-sex marriages. In response, Justice Wiggins defended the controversial decision and told the Des Moines Register, “I’m not going to let them bully me.”

Jeff Eckhoff, Justice Says He'll Defend Same-Sex Marriage Vote in Campaign, Des Moines Register, May 12, 2012; Group to Likely go after Justice in November, KCCI Des Moines, May 8, 2012.

Court Resources

6.            A News 10 report out of San Diego offered a human dimension to the discussion of the impacts of court budget cuts.  According to the article, a San Diego woman who went to court for a restraining order on Friday was forced to leave and wait out the weekend “living in fear” because “the process too took long.” As Richard Huver, a member of the Court Funding Action Committee, concluded, “[o]ur courts right now are running on fumes and there's no way to survive trigger cuts.” Meanwhile, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor expressed similar concerns; the Associated Press reports that while speaking to the Ohio State Bar Association Chief Justice O’Connor said that “open and accessible courts are a necessity in a free society, not a luxury.”

Court Cuts Could Put Families at Risk, 10News.com, May 4, 2012; Ohio Chief Justice Urges Proper Court Funding, Associated Press, May 4, 2012.


7.            According to a MinnPost.com commentary by Kansas Judge Steve Leben and Minnesota Judge Kevin Burke, recent “partisan” comments made by judges in connection to the Affordable Care Act “threaten judicial independence just as much as attacks from the outside.” While the authors acknowledge that the judiciary often becomes more politicized during an election year, they caution that “[t]rust in public institutions is at an all-time low, and judges must be careful to maintain public support for the justice system. Without it, judges cannot maintain the independence necessary for the protection of the constitutional rights we all treasure.”

Judge Steve Leben and Judge Kevin S. Burke, Judicial Independence: The New Threat from Within, MinnPost.com, May 9, 2012.