Fair Courts E-lert: Money and Partisanship in Michigan Judicial Elections

February 21, 2013

ABA Resolution: Maintain Adequate Funding in Access to Justice
The ABA issued a resolution speaking to funding and access to justice. According to the New York Law Journal, “The American Bar Association's House of Delegates Feb. 11 in Dallas approved a resolution of the New York State Bar Association warning that impending federal budget cuts threaten the national justice system.” The statement reads, “RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association urges federal elected officials, as they consider deficit reduction for fiscal year 2013 and beyond, to maintain the ability of individuals, as well as business and other organizations, to have access to justice by assuring that (1) the federal courts receive funding adequate to permit them to perform their constitutional functions effectively and efficiently, and (2) the Legal Services Corporation receives funding to meet the needs of our country’s most vulnerable individuals who are eligible for services provided by the nation’s legal service providers.”
Sources: Joel Stashenko, State Bar Sounds Warning on Impending Budget Cuts, New York Law Journal, February 14, 2013; New York Bar Statement Available here.


First Judge Confirmed in Current Congressional Term
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) issued a statement saying, “The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to confirm William Kayatta, a circuit court nominee whose nomination has lagged for ten months since he was first reported by the Judiciary Committee last year.” The statement continues, “Kayatta was first nominated in January 2012, and voted out of the Judiciary Committee in April. Maine Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins supported Kayatta last year, but despite that support, Senate Republicans refused to agree to a vote on his nomination so it was returned to the White House at the end of session. This year Kayatta’s nomination is again supported by Collins and also by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).” The Hill’s Blog features a quote from Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), “Mr. Kayatta is an attorney of exceptional intelligence and has demonstrated integrity… I cannot tell you how highly regarded he is in the Maine legal community.”
Sources: Patrick Leahy, Senate Votes To Confirm First Judicial Nominee This Year, Press Release, February 13, 2013; Ramsey Cox, Senate Votes To Approve Judicial Nomination, The Hill, February 13, 2013.

American Association For Justice Focuses on Federal Nominations
The Legal Newsline reports, “The American Association for Justice, the lobbying group of the nation’s trial lawyers, held its annual winter meeting in Miami this week, with at least one new effort on its agenda. Scheduled was a Monday meeting regarding the President’s Federal Judicial Task Force, a new group that a source says will be used to identify potential federal judicial nominees. The task force does not have a page on the AAJ website yet. As with most of the meetings listed on the agenda, its page does not provide any extra information. The source says the group will get involved in the judicial nomination process by promoting candidates in line with AAJ goals and priorities.” The article continues, “It is unclear how the AAJ will promote candidates. The AAJ did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment. In November, the AAJ was one of several groups that asked U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to conduct votes on President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees. Grassley is the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.”
Source: Chris Dickerson and John O'Brien, AAJ Looking To Promote Judicial Nominees, Legal Newsline, February 14, 2013.


Problems Caused by Money and Partisanship in Michigan Judicial Elections
Michigan Public Radio’s article highlights some of the problems Michigan’s judicial elections faced this year: “A task force says electing Michigan Supreme Court justices should not be as partisan, or as much about money, as other political offices. But according to one watchdog group, last year the Michigan Supreme Court campaign was the most expensive, most secretive judicial election in America. Several recommendations to get some of the politics and secret money out of the Supreme Court elections were ignored by the legislature last year. It’s coming up on a year since the Judicial Selection Task Force issued a report recommending changes to how we elect Michigan Supreme Court justices. Since then we elected three to the bench. Although the candidates ran on the non-partisan section of the ballot, politics was involved from the beginning.” The article explains part of the problem, saying, “So, three out of four dollars spent to get the candidates elected was not spent by the candidates. It was spent by outside groups on so-called ‘issue ads.’ And none of that money has to be reported to elections officials. The only way Robinson knows about the money is that he went door-to-door to TV stations to see how much they spent and who bought ads like these.” The article concludes that change may not be swift, “since Republicans hold the majority of the Supreme Court, the Republican majority in the legislature might not see a reason to consider a lot of changes anytime soon.”
Source: Lester Graham, The Influence of Money and Politics in Michigan Supreme Court Elections, Michigan Radio, February 18, 2013.


President Obama Lauded for Diverse Judicial Selections
The Associated Press featured an article this week analyzing President Obama’s judicial selection, focusing on the diversity of his nominations. The article begins, “President Barack Obama is trying to change the face of a federal judiciary that has a long tradition of white men passing judgment on parties from all walks of life — if he can get his nominees past the Senate.” The article cites statistics on the current nominees, “The group of 13 [recently committee approved nominees] includes eight women, six minorities and one openly gay candidate… Only seven of 36 nominations the president currently has pending are of straight white men. Compare that to the makeup of the roughly 780 judges currently active on the federal bench, where 425 are white men, according to the Federal Judicial Center. There are small percentages of minorities — 96 black judges, 70 Hispanic and 17 Asian.” The article also cites long waits unusual to Obama’s term, “Nearly half of Obama’s nominees have waited for more than 100 days for confirmation votes, while less than 10 percent of Bush's waited that long, according to White House figures. Most of the Bush nominees were approved in less than a month after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee, the White House said.”
Source: Nedra Pickler, Obama Attempting To Change Face Of The Judiciary, Associated Press, February 15, 2013.


Center for American Progress Releases Report on NRA Influence in Judicial Elections
The Center for American Progress has a new report examining the National Rifle Association’s influence in choosing and electing judicial candidates. The report explains, “The National Rifle Association has funneled millions of dollars to a front group that spends its money electing judges and state attorneys general who are tough on crime—unless those crimes involve violations of gun-violence prevention laws. The Law Enforcement Alliance of America was founded with funding from the NRA in 1991, while Congress was debating the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Police associations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police had come out strongly in favor of the Brady Act, and relations with the NRA were strained after the NRA opposed a 1986 bill to ban ‘cop killer’ bullets that can pierce body armor. So the NRA founded the Law Enforcement Alliance of America and claimed that it represented the ‘average cop’—who supposedly opposed gun-violence prevention.” This year, the LEAA “spent big money on recent state supreme court races, shelling out millions of dollars for ads that helped to elect three judges to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The group spent nearly half a million dollars in 2012 alone to elect Justice Josiah Coleman to the Mississippi high court. The organization has possibly spent even more money to elect pro-gun state attorneys general.” The report also includes research on the ongoing influence of the NRA and LEAA in state judicial races, as well as selections for states’ attorneys general.
Source: Billy Corriher, NRA Working to Elect Pro-Gun Judges and Prosecutors, Center for American Progress, February 14, 2013.