Fair Courts E-lert: Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Dispute Resolved

October 23, 2012

Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Dispute Resolved
After continuing controversy (covered in previous e-lerts here), the question of who will be the next chief justice has been resolved by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which concluded that Justice Bernette Johnson should take the position. The chief justice position is based on seniority, and the dispute centered on whether Justice Johnson, who first joined the Court as an appellate judge exclusively assigned to the Supreme Court under the terms of a voting rights consent decree, should have her years as an appellate judge counted towards her seniority. Justice Johnson will be the first black chief justice in the state. According to an article distributed by the Associated Press, “The racial dynamics of the case reverberated outside Louisiana. A long list of elected officials and civil rights advocates, including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, called for Johnson to get the position. The New York Times published two editorials supporting her, one of which called the dispute an ‘unsettling example of how power can trample voting rights even where they should be sacrosanct.’”
Source: La. Supreme Court Rules on Racially Tinged Justice Spat; State to Have 1st Black Chief Justice, Associated Press via The Washington Post, October 16, 2012.


NY Times Editorial: Politics and the Courts
The New York Times published an editorial this week drawing attention to the importance of the presidential election to judicial selection, and the harm the slow pace of federal confirmations has caused to the judicial system. The editorial states, “After a slow start, the Obama administration picked up the pace in filling judgeships, but it will end up with more vacancies on Election Day than the day the president took office. Currently, 32 positions, considered ‘judicial emergencies’ by court administrators, are unfilled, creating heavy workloads for judges on those courts. On the federal appeals courts, the final arbiters on all but the tiny percentage of cases decided by the Supreme Court, there are now 14 judgeships open out of 179 total seats. With about six judges a year taking senior status, working only part time, the next president could have as many as 40 appellate openings to fill by the end of 2016.” After pointing to the increased politicization of the confirmation process, the editorial states, “During the Obama years, nominees presenting no ideological threat have been held up in the Republicans’ campaign of partisan attack and obstruction — even against trial judges whose decisions are rarely ideological and can be appealed.” The New York Times concludes: “The holdups have cost Americans dearly — in justice delayed (it now generally takes two years to get a federal civil trial) and justice denied. It is time to adopt a more efficient, less political approach to district court confirmations. The courts must be brought to full strength so they can meet the demands for justice. The next president and the new Senate should make reforming the confirmation process a paramount priority.”
Source: Editorial, Politics and the Courts, The New York Times, October 16, 2012.

Andrew Cohen: The Case Against Protest Voting (Remember Ralph Nader)
Andrew Cohen has a piece in The Atlantic focusing on the importance of the presidential election to the future of the judiciary.  He writes, “A vote for president is a vote for the person who essentially staffs another branch of government, the judicial branch, which has the constitutional power to strike down the actions of the executive and legislative branches.” On the lower courts, Cohen states of President Obama’s legacy: “We’ve seen what the Obama appointees look like on the federal bench -- they look like the America of today, not the America of 50 years ago. Rightfully maligned by the left for his lack of enthusiasm on judicial appointments, the president still has appointed at least 82 women to the federal bench, 31 of whom are women of color, In so doing, he has begun to address the enormous gender and race gap on the federal bench.” On Governor Romney, the article says, “we know what the Romney appointees will look like. The candidate told us a few weeks ago that his models are the four most conservative justices of the Supreme Court. Three of the four voted to strike down the federal health care law, and none have shown an ounce of interest in challenging the president’s drone policy.” On the Supreme Court, Cohen opines, “I believe we are nearing one of those rare times in the history of the court where meaningful ideological realignment is possible. The next four years, it's easy to argue, will either cement the conservative hold over the Court for another generation or break it apart. So the question is: Which man do you want to shape that future?” Finally, the article concludes on a note about the importance of voting, “Like many other things in life, voting can feel like a choice between the lesser of two evils. But believing so doesn't make those evils any less clear, any less real. Vote. Vote because the future of the judiciary is at stake. Vote because that means your constitutional rights are at stake. Vote because the differences between the two men are clearest when it comes to the judiciary. Vote even if you have to hold your nose to do so.”
Source: Andrew Cohen, The Case Against Protest Voting (Remember Ralph Nader), The Atlantic, October 18, 2012.


New Issue Brief by the Center for American Progress: Disclosure Laws Needed to Ensure Transparency in Judicial Elections
The brief “is the first in a series on different policies that could help mitigate the influence of corporate campaign cash in judicial elections. The reports are intended for advocates or legislators who want to ensure our justice system works for everyone, not just those with enough money to donate.” The brief argues, “Because of the unique interests involved in judicial elections, states should consider specific disclosure rules that govern contributions and independent expenditures in these races. . . . States should consider additional disclosure for lawyers and law firms donating to judicial campaigns and for independent spenders running ads supporting or opposing judicial candidates.” The brief also points to the increased influence of outside spending: “As in other elections, independent spending on judicial races is beginning to exceed the money spent by the campaigns. This trend shows no signs of abating. Robust disclosure rules for independent spending have never been more important.”
Source: Billy Corriher, Disclosure Laws Needed to Ensure Transparency in Judicial Elections, Center for American Progress, October 16, 2012.