Review of 2015 efforts to change, alter, or end merit selection/commission based judicial appointment systems

The last several years have seen numerous efforts to modify or simply abolish merit selection/commission-based judicial appointive systems and 2015 was no exception. In these systems , a commission provides a list of names to an executive, or in the case of South Carolina the legislature, from which the appointing authority must select (as opposed to some states where the commission’s list is a recommendation only).

Much of the effort in 2015 focused on either a) reducing the percentage of lawyer-appointed members of the nomination commissions and/or b) requiring judges appointed under such systems receive super-majority support in subsequent yes/no retention elections. While major changes failed to pass in 2015, they do indicate where legislative activity will likely be focused in this area in 2016.

Alaska

In a repeat of efforts first started in 2014, legislators pressed to give more control to the governor and legislature over the state’s Judicial Council which serves as the judicial nominating commission for the state. Under SJR 3 the Council would have been expanded from 7 members to 10 by the addition of 3 new non-attorney members appointed by the governor. Moreover, all Council members would have been required to be confirmed by the legislature (currently the attorney-elected councilmembers and chief justice are not required to be confirmed into their council positions). Facing heavy opposition SJR 3 was approved by the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 25 but proceeded no further.

Arizona

Two constitutional amendments to modify the commission system (which applies to appellate judges and general jurisdiction judges in the state’s largest counties) were filed this year. HCR 2002 would have required judges facing retention elections receive at least a 60% “yes” vote. HCR 2006 would have allowed the state’s legislature to remove from office on a 2/3rds vote judges appointed under such a system without the need to prove an impeachable offense. Both bills died in committee.

Colorado

No changes offered.

Connecticut

No changes offered.

Florida

For the first session in nearly a decade there were no bills introduced to change the state’s judicial selection system, this after a loss in 2014 of a plan to allow governors to “prospectively appoint” to fill judicial vacancies that had not occurred yet.

Hawaii

SB 615 would have modified the Senate-confirmation portion of the state’s commission-based judicial selection system. Under the state’s constitution the governor (or chief justice for some lower courts) has 30 days to select from the list of names provided by the judicial selection commission. The Senate then has 30 days to confirm the appointee otherwise the person is confirmed by default. In 2012 several judicial appointments were made at or near the deadline and in one case without giving written notification to the Senate until a week later.

SB 615 would have specified that the Senate was to receive written notice concurrently with the appointment and that the 30 day clock for the Senate to confirm started only “on the senate’s receipt of the written notice”.

SB 615 was approved by the full Senate on March 10 but the House Judiciary Committee made several amendments to clarify some of the technical language regarding notification. The House amended version ultimately died in the House Finance Committee at session’s end.

Indiana

Indiana saw three separate efforts to change judicial selection in 2013. SJR 8 and SJR 9 sought to end commission-based selection for judges, allowing the governor to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals subject to Senate confirmation. Both constitutional amendments would have also repealed any judicial canons that prohibited a judge from speaking in their campaigns or making a donation of money, services, or property to a political party or a candidate for office, including a candidate for a judicial office. Finally, judges appointed under this system would have been required to receive a supermajority of “yes” votes to be retained in office: 67% under SJR 8 and 60% under SJR 9.

SJR 15 took a different tack on the issue of judicial selection. The constitutional amendment would have reduced the number of attorney-designated seats on the state’s merit selection commission and required Senate confirmation. In a unique proposal not found in any other state, the bill would have ended elections for subsequent terms, instead requiring a judge receive a 60% yes vote not of the general public but of the House of Representatives.

Neither SJR 8, SJR 9, nor SJR 15 proceeded out of committee.

Iowa

No changes offered.

Kansas

Having abolished the merit selection/commission-based judicial appointive system for the Court of Appeals in 2013 by statute, the state’s legislature urged on by the state’s governor debated numerous statutory and constitutional changes to the way the state’s Supreme Court is chosen, most focused on ending the state’s merit selection/commission based system.

  • HCR 5004: Direct partisan election of all appellate judges. Approved by House Judiciary Committee 2/17/2015.
  • HCR 5005: Allow Governor to appoint to Supreme Court or Court of Appeals subject to Senate confirmation. As is currently the case for the Court of Appeals by statute there would be a default-confirmation provision; if the Senate fails to vote on a candidate within a certain number of days (depending on if in session or out of session) the candidate is automatically confirmed. Judges would remain subject to yes/no retention elections. Approved by House Judiciary Committee 2/17/2015.
  • HCR 5006: Same as 5005, but judges would serve for life and not be subject to retention or other election.
  • HCR 5009: Require judges receive 67% “yes” vote in retention elections.
  • HCR 5012: Allow Governor to appoint to Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, but only from a list provided by the House of Representatives. The person appointed would be subject to Senate confirmation.
  • HCR 5013: Changes membership of Supreme Court nominating commission: 4 chosen by bar members, 5 chosen by governor, 6 chosen by legislative leaders.
  • HCR 5015: Keeps nominating commission, but gives governor power to name 5 out 9 members. Requires any name submitted to governor be approved by 2/3rds of commission.

In addition to the above SB 197 would have made statutory changes with respect to these commissions, placing them under the state’s Open Meetings Act. The records of attorneys who voted in elections to place attorney-members on the commissions would be subject to the state’s Open Records Act as well.

Missouri

No changes offered.

Nebraska

No changes offered.

Oklahoma

Angry at several recent decisions of the state’s Supreme Court which had resulted an impeachment effort in 2014, both the House and Senate debated either changing or ending the commission-system currently in place.

Two constitutional amendments were offered: HJR 1006 would have targeted just the Supreme Court (and not the other appellate courts), effectively replicating the system in place in Michigan and Ohio. There political parties nominate or hold primaries for judicial candidates who then appear without party labels on the November ballot. HJR 1006 would also have provided that the Governor was to name the Chief Justice from among the justices of the Supreme Court and remove the Chief Justice from that office at will. SJR 32 would have allowed the governor to appoint anyone to the appellate courts subject to Senate confirmation. The existing judicial nominating commission would remain, but as an advisory body to review the appointee prior to Senate confirmation as either “qualified” or “not qualified”. Retention elections would have remained in place for subsequent terms. Neither HJR 1006 nor SJR 32 proceeded out of committee.

Several statutory efforts were undertaken to change the composition of the judicial nominating commission. HB 2214 and SB 795 would have vacated all 6 currently serving attorney-selected members of the commission. The House bill would have refilled the positions with 6 attorneys, 2 each for the Lt. Governor, the Attorney General, and the state bar. The Senate version provided 3 selections each for the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Neither proceeded out of committee.

Rhode Island

In a repeat of a practice that has been renewed annually for almost a decade, HB 6307 would have allowed governors to fill vacancies in judicial office not only based on the contemporary list provided by the judicial nominating commission but from any list submitted by the commission in the previous 5 years. The existing statutory authorization for the 5-year look back provision lapsed as of July 31, 2015. While the House passed HB 6307 prior to the deadline (June 18), the bill remains locked in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

South Carolina

South Carolina’s legislature electes the judges of the state’s higher courts and has for the last several years used a merit selection commission to obtain a list of names for consideration. Presently the commission submit a list of the three best qualified candidates, however HB 3979 and SB 247 would have required the commission release the names of all qualified candidates. That plan was approved by the House on April 29 and remains pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee into the 2016 session. Other bills focused on giving the governor a role in the selection process.

  • HB 3123: Ends legislative selection and use of nominating commission. Provides for governor to appoint subject to Senate confirmation.
  • SB 111: Ends legislative selection and use of nominating commission. Provides for governor to appoint subject to Senate confirmation.
  • SB 180: Commission sends governor list of names, governor picks 3 names, commission reviews 3 names, legislature then picks from 3.
  • SB 242: Commission members to be selected by governor, not legislature.

South Dakota

No changes offered.

Utah

In 2008 Utah’s Justice Courts were brought into the state commission-based judicial selection system. At that time the statute required the nominating commission submit at least two names to the local appointing authority to fill a judicial vacancy. SB 141 included among its various amendments to a variety of statutes a provision that the commission must now submit at least three names. It was signed into law March 23.

Wyoming

No changes offered.