The Fair Courts E-Lert: Pennsylvania Reps. Introduce Resolution to Impeach PA Supreme Court Justices; Wisconsin Race Draws National Spending

March 23, 2018


Pennsylvania Reps. Introduce Resolution to Impeach PA Supreme Court Justices

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania House Representative Cris Dush officially introduced resolutions to impeach four Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices – all Democrats– after the justices found the Republican drawn Congressional maps unconstitutional and imposed a new map for the upcoming election. The bill has 11 co-sponsors, all of whom are Republicans.

The introductions came one day after a federal District Court in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Supreme Court both declined Republican legislators' request to block the new maps.

Republican leaders in the Pennsylvania legislature have not joined the formal call for impeachment, and some have signaled a desire to move on from the case. House Speaker Michael Turzai said in a statement saying, “We continue to believe that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overstepped its authority…Nonetheless, we respect the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and are prepared to move on to other issues of importance to the people of Pennsylvania.” State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said, “I’m sure we’ll review options, but I think we’re accepting the decision — don’t like it, but that’s life and we move on.”

On Thursday, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor, who dissented in the PA redistricting case, nevertheless critiqued the resolutions. Justice Saylor argued, “Threats of impeachment directed against Justices because of their decision in a particular case are an attack upon an independent judiciary, which is an essential component of our constitutional plan of government.”


Michigan Supreme Court Considers Whether Court Costs are Illegal Taxes

The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments this year on whether court costs local judges impose on persons convicted of a crime are illegal taxes against those individuals. Ed White of The Associated Press explains, "[u]nder Michigan law, anyone convicted of a crime can be ordered to pay for a portion of a court’s operating expenses."
The plaintiff, who was ordered to pay $1,611 in court costs, argues that those fees are an illegal tax under the Michigan Constitution because the statute does not clearly state that it is a tax and there is no guidance to courts about the limit on fees that they can impose. Critics of the law argue that "[c]riminal defendants are not a special class of citizens who must bear the expenses of government by means of a higher tax imposed on them alone." The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the court fees.

White reports that the case is worth tens of millions of dollars in court funding: in 2016, Michigan state courts collected $38 million in court fees. At the same time, a Michigan state commission has until 2019 to propose long-term strategies for funding the state’s courts. Whether court fees are an option could significantly impact those recommendations.


Wisconsin Supreme Court Race Draws National Spending

On Wednesday, a new analysis by John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center revealed that federal judicial nominations have become increasingly contentious in recent decades.

Confirmed judges for Presidents John F. Kennedy through President George Bush, on average, had less than a single vote cast against them. This trend began to shift under the Clinton Administration. Under Clinton, confirmed judges received on average 1 “no” vote. Under George W. Bush, confirmed judges received on average 2 “no” votes. Obama’s confirmed judges faced significantly more opposition: “[t]he 330 judges Barack Obama appointed during his eight years in office faced an average of six votes against them.” Trump’s confirmed judges have received the highest average number of “no” votes since 1959, with an average of 23 “no” votes. 

Confirmation rates for federal judges have also declined in recent decades. Gramlich explains, “While 99% of Kennedy’s court picks were confirmed, the rate was substantially lower for many subsequent presidents, including 78% for George H.W. Bush, 85% for Clinton, 86% for George W. Bush and 83% for Obama.” While it is too early to examine Trump’s overall judicial confirmation success rate, Trump did set a record for the highest number of federal appeals judges confirmed in the first year of his presidency.



Study Finds Diversity of Bench Affects Diversity of Judges Cited

A recent study by Rachael Hinkle and Michael Nelson found that federal appeals court judges tend to cite the decisions of judges with similar backgrounds – indicating judicial diversity affects whose legal theories are amplified. Nelson and Hinkle examined every U.S. Court of Appeals opinion from 1990 to 2010 regarding protection against unreasonable search and seizures, and tracked the race, gender and professional background of the judges cited and those issuing the decisions.

They found that “minority judges promote the work of other judges who share their race or ethnicity more than judges who do not.” Similarly, they found that judges are more likely to cite judges with whom they share professional or educational backgrounds.

Citations and amplifications of legal theories impact judicial influence. Nelson and Hinkle explain that “Judges whose opinions are cited more often have a larger influence on the development of legal policy than do judges whose opinions are cited less often.” A more diverse bench, therefore, will “broaden the range of voices that influence legal development.”