Fair Courts E-lert: MN Federal Judge Confirmed; Recusal Reform Introduced in WI

January 22, 2016

DIVERSITY

U.S. Senate Confirms First Black Female Judge to U.S. District Court of Minnesota

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Justice Wilhelmina Wright to a position on the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, making her the first black female federal judge in the state, writes Stephen Montemayor for the Star Tribune. Judge Wright, who sits on the Minnesota Supreme Court, “is the only jurist in state history to serve as a state district court judge, appellate court judge and state Supreme Court justice,” he writes. Her confirmation comes despite pushback from Heritage Action for America, which urged Republican senators to reject her nomination because of her contributions to a 1989 law review article she wrote as a law student. Judge Wright was confirmed by a 58-36 majority that included 14 Republicans. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, “[s]he is someone that deserves to be on the federal bench. At a time of incredible gridlock she was able to walk the gantlet.” The vacancy Judge Wright filled had been “deemed a ‘judicial emergency’ by the U.S. Judicial Conference.”

RECUSAL

WI Legislator Introduces Recusal Reform

Wisconsin State Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie) introduced a series of laws in mid-December to reform recusal practices, writes Jessie Opoien in The Capital Times. According to Hebl, “[o]ut of control campaign spending and many high-profile judicial recusal and discipline cases in recent years have demonstrated the need for reforming Wisconsin’s judicial discipline and recusal standards.” The reform package would require recusal “if a ‘reasonable person would question whether the judge or justice could act in an impartial manner’” and “if, within the last [four] years, a party in the case has contributed $1000 or more – directly or in independent expenditures.” Hebl’s reforms would also “[a]llow the state Supreme Court to review recusal decisions of justices” and require justices who decline to recuse themselves to “report the reasons for the decision.” Finally, Supreme Court justices would be subject to discipline by “a panel of Court of Appeals judges rather than the Supreme Court.” The introduced reforms follow the “legal battle over a John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups that supported him.”

STATE JUDICIAL SELECTION

Illinois State Board of Elections Disagrees Over Upcoming Race

Although a hearing examiner found in favor of three judges who resigned to run in the general election instead of retention elections, the State Board of Elections could not agree on whether to accept his findings. In an article for the Belleville News-Democrat, George Pawlaczyk writes that the Board “deadlocked … 4 to 4” so instead decided to  “send the matter on to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office for a legal opinion.”  Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook said some members of the State Board of Elections were concerned that “the (state) constitution was written specifically to reflect the concern that the judicial branch needed to remain as unpolitical as possible,” and that although “[j]udges are [initially] elected on a partisan basis…they are then supposed to run on their own record” in retention elections. However, one of the judges in question, Judge John Baricevic, argued that by resigning, “he faced a potential primary challenge as well as running in the general election giving voters more opportunity to vote for or against him.”

Judicial Nominating Commission Proposed in VA

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) introduced a bill that would establish a judicial nominating commission in Virginia to recommend appellate candidates to the General Assembly, writes Bill Raftery of Gavel to Gavel. According to Raftery, “Virginia is one of only two states…where the legislature alone elects judges” for all 3 levels of the court. The proposal would “create a 15-member Judicial Nominations Commission,” which would be “chosen by the legislature and each of the state’s 11 congressional districts would be ensured at least 1 seat.” Furthermore “[n]o more than 5 of the 15 members could be current or former attorneys,” and members of the General Assembly would be prohibited from serving. The Commission would “review candidates and release the names of ‘not more than three persons.’” Trial courts vacancies would be filled either by a local nominating commission, appointed by “[e]ach member of the General Assembly who represents any portion of the Judicial Circuit in question” or the local Assembly members can create “their own system for finding candidates” as long as it “ensures participation of each delegation member and... the general public.”