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Fair Courts E-Lert: Democratic Senators Warn SCOTUS of Court Reforms

Our latest Fair Courts E-Lert highlights an amicus brief filed by Democratic Senators warning SCOTUS of potential court reforms, a group’s effort to recall Alaska’s governor over cuts to Court’s budget, and more.

August 23, 2019




Democratic Senators File Amicus Brief Warning SCOTUS of Court Reforms in Gun Case

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), filed an amicus brief last week, warning the U.S. Supreme Court that it would face public pressure to be reformed unless it resisted the petitioners’ invitation to take part in a “political ‘project’ to expand the Second Amendment and thwart gun safety regulations.” “Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics,’” wrote the Senators.

The case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Associations v. City of New York, involves a challenge to a now-defunct ban on the transportation of firearms. According to the Washington Post, “[i]t is the first Second Amendment case the court has accepted in a decade, and it came after the NRA-endorsed Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh replaced the more moderate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on the closely divided court.”

Several Republican politicians criticized the language of the brief, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who tweeted, “Extremely concerning to see Senate Democrats threaten federal judges like this.” Several Democrats, including Democratic Presidential nominees Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Rep. Beto O’Rourke, have also called for a restructuring of the Supreme Court, according to CNBC.



Alaska Governor Faces Recall Effort and Litigation Over Cuts to Court Budget

Recall Dunleavy, a group seeking to recall Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy, reports that it has obtained the required signatures for recall petitions following the Governor’s decision to cut $444 million from the state operating budget for the 2020 fiscal year. According to CNN, the group accuses Dunleavy of, “refusing to appoint a judge, misusing state funds, violating separation of powers and incompetently vetoing state funds.” One of Dunleavy’s budget vetoes central to the group’s campaign was his veto of $334,700 from the Alaska Court System’s 2020 budget in response to the Alaska Supreme Court’s decisions protecting abortion access.

In July, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alaska also filed a lawsuit to require Dunleavy’s administration to return the court’s funding. “Governor Dunleavy’s court system veto was an explicit measure of retaliation in response to a February 2019 Alaska Supreme Court decision holding unconstitutional the state’s attempts to limit indigent women’s rights to abortion,” according to the complaint. In a press release, the ACLU of Alaska further maintained that the Governor’s veto was “an impermissible exercise of executive authority that attacks Alaskans’ deep commitment to an independent judiciary, violates Alaska’s constitutional separation of powers, and illegally attempts to reallocate budget appropriations.”


Lawsuit in North Carolina Challenging New Method of Electing District Court Judges

On August 14, 2019, former Appeals Court Judge Robert Hunter filed a lawsuit in Wake County, North Carolina challenging the state’s new means of electing district court judges in North Carolina’s largest county, Mecklenburg County.

At issue is a 2018 law passed by the legislature, over Governor Roy Cooper’s veto, that divided Mecklenburg County’s twenty-one district court seats into eight districts, putting an end to the practice of electing judges countywide.

The lawsuit claims that “the law divides the county into two predominant racial groups and sorts the voters into districts by race… [and] violates the Voting Rights Act.”

An earlier analysis of proposed judicial district maps by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice found evidence that map drawers were “using race in an impermissible way, packing voters of color into as few districts as possible.”

The Defendants include North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, the State Board of Elections, State House Speaker Tim Moore, and State Senate Leader Phil Berger.



Report Finds Controversial Impact on Judicial Decision-Making After Judges Attended Ideologically- Funded Judicial Seminar

A recent study by economists found that federal judges attending a controversial economics seminar at the Koch-funded Law & Economics Center at George Mason University changed the way they decided cases when they returned to their jurisdictions. After attending the seminar, “participating judges use more economics language, render more conservative verdicts in economics cases, rule against regulatory/taxation agencies more often, and impose longer criminal sentences.” The study also suggests that nonparticipating judges exposed to participating judges “increase their use of economics language in subsequent opinions, suggesting economics ideas diffused throughout the judiciary.”

According to a report by UnKoch Our Courts, conservative funding of judicial education “has played, and continues to play, a central role in th[e] growing politicization of our court system—facilitating a rise in corporate-favoring judicial decisions that subsequently strip the public of our reproductive freedoms, voting rights, LGBT rights, access to healthcare, and regulations that protect our environment.” Accordingly, “efforts to ensure a fair court system must include conversations not only about dark-money influence over the nomination and confirmation process but dark-money influence over the mechanisms that have been put in place to groom judges being installed in the first place.”