Fair Courts E-lert: Obama Names SCOTUS Nominee; PA Supreme Court Justice Resigns

March 18, 2016

SUPREME COURT

President Obama Nominates Merrick Garland to Supreme Court

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by Antonin Scalia, write Michael D. Shear, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, and Gardiner Harris for the New York Times. Obama described Garland as “one of America’s sharpest legal minds [and] someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness, and excellence.” He also implored Senate Republicans to hold a “fair hearing and then an up-or-down vote,” saying: “If you don’t, then it will not only be an abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty, it will indicate a process for nominating and confirming judges that is beyond repair.” However, the New York Times says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) “called Judge Garland personally to say he would not be receiving him in his Capitol office, nor taking any action on his nomination.” In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, Brennan Center Fellow Dorothy Samuels and Senior Counsel Alicia Bannon look back at America’s founding documents and conclude Alexander Hamilton and other framers would agree a hearing should be held.

JUDICIAL ETHICS

Justice Eakin Resigns from PA Supreme Court

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin resigned from the bench following his alleged involvement in “a pornographic email scandal,” write Angela Couloumbis, Craig R. McCoy, and Mark Fazlollah of Philly.com. Eakin is the second judge and one of “more than a half-dozen public officials” who have lost their jobs in connection to an “exchange of email messages containing pornography and jokes that mocked African Americans, women, gays, lesbians, and others.” The writers explain that Eakin “was charged last year with violating judicial ethics rules” and “faced a trial on the charges before the Court of Judicial Discipline this month.” Although, according to the authors,  “Eakin’s decision to step down appeared to be a bid to save his taxpayer-paid pension,” his attorney William Costopoulos said his “resignation would not necessarily halt that process or spare the justice's pension.” Eakin has apologized for the emails and maintained that “they do not reflect his character and that his judicial opinions over the last two decades were based on thoughtful reasoning and facts, not biases.”

RECUSAL

Writ of Certiorari Filed in Phillip Morris Case

Plaintiffs in the multi-billion dollar lawsuit against tobacco company Phillip Morris filed a writ of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court over Illinois Justice Lloyd Karmeier’s failure to recuse himself from the case, writes Jim Dey for The News-Gazette. Karmeier’s 2014 retention election saw high levels of spending, both in support and opposition, by groups and parties affiliated with both parties to the lawsuit, which was pending before the Illinois Supreme Court at that time. When the case came before the court in 2015 on appeal, the plaintiffs “asked that Karmeier recuse himself on the ground of bias.” Despite the spending, Dey writes “Karmeier refused to withdraw from the case” and joined the November 2015 decision in favor of Phillip Morris. The petition asks “whether it violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for a judge to participate in a case where the judge has made pejorative public statements about a litigant or an attorney, and there exists a reasonable public perception that one of the parties (Philip Morris) funded the judge's election campaign.”

STATE JUDICIAL SELECTION

NC Retention Election Ruling Appealed to State Supreme Court

Following a lower-court ruling striking down the use of retention elections for the North Carolina Supreme Court, the state’s Board of Elections appealed the decision to the Supreme Court itself, writes Frank Taylor for the Carolina Public Press. Taylor reports that multiple observers say the appeal “may raise serious questions about a conflict of interest.” Rick Henderson, managing editor of the Carolina Journal, said the appeal, in effect, “let[s] justices make the final decision on the makeup of their own court, potentially thwarting the will of the legislators.” Chris Fitzsimmons, director of N.C. Policy Watch, indicated that Justice Robert Edmunds Jr’s “situation is the most urgent because he’s the only justice whose current term is up in 2016.” He also notes that the court’s current 4-3 conservative majority means “[w]hat voters decide in 2016 and how they decide it will determine which way the court leans politically.”