Fair Courts E-lert: WI High Court Issues Controversial Ruling; Judicial Vacancies Persist

July 17, 2015

JUDICIAL RECUSAL

Wisconsin High Court Ruling Raises Judicial Impartiality Concerns

Yesterday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled 4-2 to end a John Doe investigation into whether ostensibly “independent” groups had illegally coordinated with Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign. The four justices who formed the majority declined to recuse themselves from the case despite an apparent conflict of interest. “Each of the four justices who ruled to toss out the investigation heavily benefited from campaign spending from the groups under investigation during their own elections for judicial office,” read a statement from the Brennan Center. The Center filed a brief earlier this year urging those justices to consider their recusal obligations in light of U.S. Supreme Court recusal precedent. “This ruling raises grave concerns about the fairness and impartiality of the court in this case,” said Brennan Center counsel Matt Menendez. “Based on publicly-available information, it is extraordinary that the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to explain how several of the justices could, ethically and constitutionally, even rule on this case.”

JUDICIAL INDEPENDENCE

Kansas Judge Signals Willingness to Challenge Court Funding Law

A Kansas law that conditions funding of the state court system on the outcome of an ongoing court case could itself be subject to legal challenge, writes Peter Hancock in the Lawrence Journal-World. The controversial law has attracted national attention, with editorials across the country calling it an attempt by the Kansas Legislature to improperly influence the outcome of District Judge Larry Solomon’s constitutional challenge to a 2014 law stripping the Kansas Supreme Court of administrative authority. Hancock notes that Judge Solomon’s legal team, which includes the Brennan Center, says the new law is unconstitutional, as it “violates the separation of powers doctrine and threatens the independence of the state judiciary.” A brief submitted last week by Judge Solomon’s attorneys in the challenge to the administrative law said that, in the event the court ruled in their favor and the revocation of the court’s budget is enacted, they were prepared to “immediately bring suit … to preserve the judicial appropriations for 2016 and 2017 pending a final adjudication.” 

JUDICIAL VACANCIES

States Face “Judicial Emergencies” As Judicial Vacancies Persist

In The Record, Jane Fritsch writes that New Jersey’s federal courts – some of the busiest in the country – “are operating under a ‘judicial emergency,’ as declared by the body that sets standards for caseloads, because of vacant judgeships that have gone unfilled for months.” In 2015, four of the state’s 17 federal trial judges either retired or taken senior status, a form of semi-retirement, resulting in increased caseloads for the remaining judges. Fritsch says three judicial nominees are currently pending before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re at the mercy of the Senate,” said Jerome B. Simandle, New Jersey’s chief federal judge. Another “judicial emergency” – one of 28 nationwide -  has been declared in Idaho, where the state is down to just one district judge after one took senior status July 3, writes Betsy Russell in The Spokesman-Review. Russell notes that “Idaho is one of just three states with only two U.S. district judges; it hasn’t gotten an additional judgeship in 60 years, though its caseloads have soared.”

JUDICIAL DIVERSITY

First Latina Judge Appointed to Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

After a lengthy nomination process, the U.S. Senate voted last week to approve Kara Farnandez Stoll as the first Latina judge on the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, according to Michael Oleaga of the Latin Post. Stoll was nominated by President Obama in November but was not approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee until April. Before the final Senate vote, says Oleaga, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) spoke in support of Stoll. “She is superbly qualified, and once confirmed, she will be the first woman of color to serve on the Federal Circuit,” said Leahy. “She has the strong endorsement of the nonpartisan Hispanic National Bar Association as well as from the Federal Circuit Bar Association, and the American Intellectual Property Law Association.” The vote was unanimous, though five senators did not participate. Oleaga notes that another Latino nominee for an appellate judgeship, Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo, was put forward at the same time as Stoll and “still awaits his confirmation vote amidst political gridlock.”