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Fair Courts Update: Watchdog group calls Kentucky Supreme Court race too partisan

Plus, why a federal judge canceled his retirement plan + Montana Supreme Court blocks judicial gerrymandering referendum + more

Published: September 20, 2022

New York Federal District Court Judge Rescinds Senior Status After Biden Names Successor From Albany, not Utica

Last year, U.S. District Judge David Hurd of the Northern District of New York wrote a letter to President Biden expressing plans to take senior status upon confirmation of his successor. However, the day after Biden nominated Jorge Alberto Rodriguez as his successor, Hurd wrote another letter saying he would not step down unless his successor lived in the Utica area and served out of the courthouse there.

Rodriguez, who has served as a New York State assistant attorney general in Albany since 2014, has indicated he plans to preside in the Utica courthouse if confirmed. But on August 10, Hurd sent another letter reiterating his decision not to take senior status.

On August 15, leaders of several Latino advocacy groups sent an open letter to Judge Hurd expressing “deep concern and bewilderment” over his decision not to step down, noting, among other things, that Rodriguez would be the first Latino judge to preside over the Northern District.

In recent years, several federal judges have conditioned their retirement upon the confirmation of their preferred successor, prompting advocacy group Fix the Court to call for “a change to the code of ethics for federal judges that would explicitly prevent judges from using senior status as a bargaining tool.”

Montana Supreme Court Blocks Referendum to Elect Justices by District

On August 12, the Montana Supreme Court voted to block a question from appearing on the ballot this November that would have asked voters if the state’s high court justices should be elected by districts rather than statewide.

The referendum, which was put on the ballot by Republican lawmakers last year, would have created seven judicial districts, five of which would have likely voted for a Republican-preferred candidate. Republican state representative Barry Usher, who sponsored the legislation, also has ties to a conservative dark money group that has spent significantly in past Montana Supreme Court races.

The majority opinion, relying heavily on a prior decision striking down a similar measure in 2012, noted that Montana’s constitution requires statewide elections of high court justices and the referendum “would deny Montana voters a say in the identity of six out of the seven individuals responsible for such weighty decisions affecting their lives.”

When asked about the referendum, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat called it “judicial gerrymandering” instigated by the state’s Republican Party disagreeing with recent court decisions that they perceived as “too liberal.”

Judicial Election Watchdog Group Raises Concerns About Partisanship in Kentucky Supreme Court Race

The Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee, a private, nonpartisan, and nonprofit group formed 16 years ago to “safeguard the integrity of the judiciary in Kentucky judicial elections,” issued a public statement on August 10 expressing concerns about displays of partisanship throughout the campaign of Joe Fischer, a state representative who is running for Kentucky Supreme Court.

Although Kentucky’s constitution calls for nonpartisan judicial elections, the statement cites several examples of Fischer’s campaign being openly partisan, including his campaign logo identifying him as “the conservative Republican” in the race and posts on his campaign’s Facebook page sharing endorsements from local Republican Party chapters. Fischer’s Facebook page also lists an upcoming fundraiser featuring “special guest” Sen. Mitch McConnell.

The Committee’s statement reads “[the Committee] feels that judicial candidates who emphasize their partisan affiliation are leading voters to think of judicial elections as partisan, when they are not, and that this trend will undermine the independence and thus the integrity of the judiciary.”

Before running for state supreme court, Fischer authored Kentucky’s “trigger law” banning abortion, which is currently being challenged in state trial court and may come before the Kentucky Supreme Court in the future.