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Fair Courts Update: DOJ Reopens Office for Access to Justice

This Fair Courts Update covers the reopening of the Office for Access to Justice, a record-setting week of judicial confirmations, state supreme court elections in Pennsylvania, and more.

Published: November 9, 2021

DOJ Reopens Office for Access to Justice

On Octo­ber 29, Attor­ney General Merrick Garland announced the reopen­ing of the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice, an office estab­lished during the Obama admin­is­tra­tion to improve access to justice in the civil and crim­inal legal system.

The reopen­ing of the office, which was quietly shut down during the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, is part of Garland’s phased stra­tegic plan to “restore and expand the emphasis on access to justice within the depart­ment and through the federal govern­ment,” accord­ing to the DOJ’s press release. The plan was developed by Garland in response to a memo issued by Pres­id­ent Joe Biden in May instruct­ing him to expand the DOJ’s access to justice work. 

Prior to being shuttered in 2018, the office worked to reform the use of fines and fees by state and local courts, protect the right to coun­sel for juven­ile and indi­gent defend­ants, and increase access to civil legal aid for those who could not afford lawyers, accord­ing to Law360.

Attor­ney General Garland said: “There can be no equal justice without equal access to justice. And because we do not yet have equal access to justice in Amer­ica, the task before us is urgent.”

Biden Announces Ninth Round of Judi­cial Nomin­ees After Record Week of Confirm­a­tions

On Novem­ber 3, Pres­id­ent Biden announced his ninth round of judi­cial nomin­ees, includ­ing nine new federal court nomin­ees. The pres­id­ent’s announce­ment comes after having a record-setting number of judi­cial nomin­ees confirmed by the Senate during the last week of Octo­ber.

Biden’s latest slate of nomin­ees includes eight women, four people of color, and two former public defend­ers. Four of the nomin­ees, if confirmed, would also be the only Black woman in the North­ern District of Cali­for­nia, the second Latina nominee to the South­ern District of Cali­for­nia, the second Latina in the District of New Jersey, and the second Latina in the District of Nevada.

As of this week, the Senate has confirmed 28 of Biden’s 62 federal court nomin­ees, includ­ing Myrna Pérez, the former director of the Bren­nan Center’s Voting Rights and Elec­tions Program. People for the Amer­ican Way reports that as of Octo­ber 27, 70% of Biden’s judi­cial nomin­ees are people of color and nearly 75% are women. 

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Elec­tion Brings Big Donors, Bar Asso­ci­ation Sanc­tions

On Novem­ber 2, Repub­lican Kevin Brob­son was elec­ted to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, defeat­ing Demo­crat Maria McLaugh­lin in the race to replace Repub­lican Justice Thomas Saylor, who hit the state’s mandat­ory retire­ment age.

In all, the race between Brob­son and McLaugh­lin attrac­ted over five million dollars, with Brob­son bene­fit­ting from nearly $3 million of that spend­ing, includ­ing $1.7 million from a group primar­ily funded by a Phil­adelphia billion­aire. Around $2 million was spent in favor of McLaugh­lin, and her biggest donors were labor unions and the Phil­adelphia Trial Lawyers Asso­ci­ation’s polit­ical action commit­tee.

Over $1.9 million was spent on tele­vi­sion ads, with McLaugh­lin spend­ing the most ($724,540). The Repub­lican State Lead­er­ship Commit­tee, a conser­vat­ive group that is mostly funded by the Judi­cial Crisis Network, accoun­ted for nearly one-third of the spend­ing on ads in favor of Brob­son.

One of the ads run by Brob­son’s campaign against McLaugh­lin was found to have viol­ated the state bar’s advert­ising guidelines. The campaign re-released an edited version of the ad, which omit­ted the claim that one of McLaugh­lin’s “largest donors is indicted by the FBI for polit­ical bribery” and added context to a discus­sion of one of McLaugh­lin’s rulings.

To Increase High Court Diversity, Mary­land Governor Extends Dead­line for Judi­cial Applic­a­tions

Governor Larry Hogan exten­ded the dead­lines for applic­a­tions to fill two vacan­cies on Maryland’s highest court “in order to attract as broad a field of candid­ates as possible consist­ent with his commit­ment to diversity and outreach.”

The vacan­cies on the Mary­land Court of Appeals were created by the mandat­ory retire­ments of Judges Robert McDon­ald and Joseph Getty, both of whom will be required to step down in 2022 because of the state’s mandat­ory retire­ment age. Appoint­ments to the high court are made by the governor, who chooses from candid­ates recom­men­ded by the state’s Judi­cial Nomin­at­ing Commis­sion. Seven applic­a­tions were submit­ted for McDon­ald’s seat and four for Getty’s, but accord­ing to the Baltimore Sun, “six of the initial seven applic­ants [for McDon­ald’s seat] were men and all appeared to be white.”

Governor Hogan has faced criti­cism for a lack of diversity in his past judi­cial appoint­ments. Currently, the 7-person court has three women and four men, and two Black justices and five white justices. The Bren­nan Center reports that as of April 2021, Mary­land was one of 12 states with no Latino high court justices despite Lati­nos making up over 10% of the state popu­la­tion.