Across country, state legislatures consider altering number of nominees judicial nominating commissions must release

One particular aspect of judicial selection legislatures have had a keen interest has been the number of names that advance through judicial nominating commissions (JNCs). 2016 looks to be no exception; in Missouri SJR 30 prefiled for the new year would eliminate the restriction that the state’s JNCs send only three names to the governor. Moreover, an examination of legislation over the last two decades shows a marked uptick in interest outside of Missouri over the last several years.

Alaska

The state’s constitution provides the state’s JNC send “two or more persons” to the governor when a vacancy occurs in either the Supreme or Superior Court; statutes require “two or more persons” for Court of Appeals (Alaska Stat. § 22.07.070) and District Court (§ 22.15.170) vacancies. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Arizona

The state’s constitution provides that if the vacancy is on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, or Superior Court (in counties that use a commission system) the governor is to receive the names of “not less than three persons.” Several efforts have been made to amend this provision. SCR 1038 of 2005 would have increased this to 6 names for appellate vacancies and 7 for Superior Courts. In 2011 proposals were submitted (SCR 1040, SCR 1046, and SCR 1049) that would have increased the list to 6 names for appellate vacancies and 7 for Superior Courts.

The proposal that eventually made it on the ballot was SCR 1001 of 2011: 8 names for both trial and appellate vacancies. SCR 1001 also included several other changes to give governors more power over the JNCs. When it appeared on the 2012 ballot as Proposition 115 it received only a 27% yes vote. Undaunted by the loss, the legislature in 2013 passed HB 2600. Rather than amend the constitution, the legislature tried to force by statute the JNCs to provide governors “the names of at least five persons” for trial and appellate vacancies. In September 2013 the state’s supreme court held that law unconstitutional.

Colorado

The state’s constitution provides the JNCs in the state are to provide “a list of three nominees for the supreme court and any intermediate appellate court, and… a list of two or three nominees for all other courts of record…” No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Connecticut

Connecticut adopted a commission based system in 1986: governors nominate from a list provided by the state’s judicial selection commission but the constitution is silent as to the number. State law (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-44a) provides that the commission is to provide the governor a list of all “qualified candidates”. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Florida

The state adopted a merit/commission system in 1972 for the state’s trial and appellate courts. The original provision required the JNCs to submit a list of “not fewer than three persons”. For the appellate courts, this was amended in 1976 to precisely 3 (“one of three persons nominated”). For trial courts, commission appointment was eliminated, but was made optional under a 1998 amendment that allowed voters to opt in for each county in the 2000 election. Under the 1998 trial court opt-in provision “not fewer than three” names were to go to the governor. No county opted into this system for its trial courts.

For the appellate courts, several efforts were made in the 1990s to change the “not fewer than three persons” language. The first was to change it to precisely “three persons” (SJR 18 of 1992). Eventually the legislature settled on “Not fewer than three persons nor more than six persons” (HJR 1415 and SJR 978 of 1996). The expansion to 3-6 names was approved by voters as Amendment 3 in November 1996.

By 2000 another round of efforts were made to expand the list, this time by dropping any numerical requirements and providing the JNCs were to send a list of all applicants (HB 923 of 2000) or a list of all persons eligible to fill the vacancy (HB 627, HB 827, SB 1794, and SB 1860 of 2001). None of the proposals advanced and the issue has appeared to have remained dormant since.

Hawaii

The state adopted a commission based appointment system in the 1978. Originally the commission was required to submit a “list of not less than six nominees” for each vacancy in the state’s appellate and trial courts. A 1994 amendment (SB 2294) modified this to “a list of not less than four, and not more than six” for the Supreme, Intermediate Appellate, and Circuit Courts; District Courts remained at “not less than six nominees”.

There the matter lay for over a decade until a 2005 effort (SB 1166) would have provided the lists for all courts were to be made up of “not less than three.” In 2007 a measure to change the threshold down to 3-5 names for all courts was introduced. SB 948 was approved by the full Senate and advanced through the House Judiciary Committee before ultimately dying when the legislature adjourned.

Indiana

The state’s constitution provides the judicial nominating commission must submit “a list of three nominees” to the governor for vacancies on the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Iowa

The state’s constitution provides that the judicial nominating commission is to provide “three nominees” for Supreme Court vacancies and “two nominees” for District Courts; a statute (Iowa Code § 46.14A) with respect to the Court of Appeals repeats the “three nominees” language.

With respect to the constitutional provision, there were several efforts (SJR 2006 of 2010; SJR 6 and SJR 7 of 2011) to allow the governor to reject the list of three names provided for Supreme Court vacancies and requiring the commission submit a list of three new names. None advanced.

With respect to the Court of Appeals, the statute creating the court in 1976 required the nominating commission provide the governor a list of 3 names for vacancies on that court (former § 46.15). That number was expanded to five when the state’s judiciary was reorganized in 1983. The number was reverted back to 3 when portions of section Iowa Code § 46.15 were recodified as § 46.14A (SF 381 of 2007).

Kansas

The state’s constitution specifies that with respect to the Supreme Court the Supreme Court Nominating Commission is to provide the governor a list of “three persons.” The state’s Court of Appeals had until 2013 also be selected in like fashion via a statutory system (Kan. Stat. Ann. § 20-3005) that required a list of “three nominees”. In addition District Courts in those judicial districts that have opted into the commission-select system have their vacancies filled from a list of “not less than two nor more than three persons for each office which is vacant” (§ 20-2909).

With respect to the Supreme Court, there was an effort to allow governors to reject the list of 3 names and be provided a second list of 3 new names for a total of 6 (HCR 5005 of 2009) or to simply have the commission submit 6 names on the first list (SCR 1619 of 2007 & SCR 1612 of 2009). Another (HCR 5027 of 2013) would have provided the commission submit all qualified persons to the governor.

With respect to the Court of Appeals no effort was made to expand the list the commission was required to provide, the commission system was simply eliminated in 2013 and the governor permitted to appoint any qualified person subject to senate confirmation.

With respect to the District Courts, no recent effort appears to have been made to modify the current practice of 2-3 names.

Missouri

Since adoption of its commission-based plan the Missouri constitution has specified that commissions are to submit “three persons” to fill vacancies in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and specified Circuit Courts. Although a 1976 constitutional revision moved the location of the language (from Art. V, Sec. 29(a) to the new Art. V, Sec 25(a)) the 3-persons provision was unchanged.

Much of the focus in this area has been for a 4/8 or 5/10 plan. Under the proposals the initial list submitted to the governor would be made up of 4 or 5 names (vs. the current 3). The governor would be allowed to reject the list and ask for a new one, for a total of 8 or 10 nominees.

The 4/8 plan appeared in HJR 19 of 2009 (as introduced) and SJR 17 of 2011.

The 5/10 provision appeared in HJR 49 of 2008, HJR 10 of 2009 (as amended), SJR 9 of 2009, HJR 58 of 2010, HJR 18 of 2011, and HJR 44 of 2012. A plan that would allow for only a single list of 5 names was considered as HJR 52 of 2008.

The latest iteration prefiled for the 2016 session (SJR 30) would simply eliminate the 3-name provision.

Nebraska

The state’s constitution provides vacancies in the state’s Supreme and District Courts must be filed from a list of “of at least two nominees” presented to the governor. Various statutes extend this practice to the Court of Appeals (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 24-1101), County Courts (§ 24-820) and Juvenile Courts (§ 43-2,114) and incorporate the constitutional provision by reference. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

New Mexico

New Mexico uses a unique two-step process for judicial selection. When a vacancy occurs one of three JNCs (appellate judges, district court judges, or metropolitan court judges commissions) meets and submits to the governor a list of all “persons qualified for judicial office and recommended for appointment”. The governor can then ask for a second list of names. Whoever is picked, however, must then face off in partisan elections at the next general election.

While the constitution does not provide for a minimum or maximum number of names, one bill did seek to put such a provision in place after a single name was submitted in 2006 to the state’s governor to fill a District Court vacancy and no additional names sent when he asked for a second list. SB 1075 of 2007 would have required JNCs provide at least two names per vacancy. The bill never proceeded out of committee.

New York

New York’s constitution since 1977 requires vacancies for the state’s top court (called the Court of Appeals) be filled via a commission on judicial nomination, but gives the legislature power to set the organization and procedure of the commission. State law on this subject (Judiciary Law § 63) specifies the list to fill associate judgeship must contain “at least three persons and not more than seven persons.” Interestingly, the chief judgeship must be made up of at least 7 persons (“In recognition of the unique responsibilities of the chief judge of the court of appeals for policies of judicial administration, for a vacancy in the office of chief judge the commission shall recommend to the governor seven persons.”)

In 1993 an effort (AB 916) was made to raise the 7-name limit for chief judge to 11 names and automatically put all serving associate judges on that list. The bill was reintroduced for several sessions thereafter (AB 3699 of 1995 & AB 2148 of 1997).

In 2009 an attempt was made to eliminate the numerical restrictions and require the commission send all qualified names to the governor. AB 3866 of that year failed to advance but was reintroduced in the 2011 session as AB 309.

Also in 2009 an attempt was made to increase the limits from 3-7 to 5-9 (associate judge) and from 7 to 9 (chief judge). It too failed to advance.

Oklahoma

The state’s constitution provides that vacancies in the state’s two top courts (Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals) are to be filled from a list of “three (3) nominees” submitted to the governor. A statute (Okla. Stat. tit. 20, § 30.17) extends this practice to the state’s intermediate appellate court (Court of Civil Appeals). No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Rhode Island

In 1994 the state’s constitution was amended to provide vacancies in the Supreme Court were to be filled from a list provided by a judicial nominating commission to be established by the legislature and confirmed by the House and Senate. Lower court vacancies (Superior, Family, and District) were also to be filled by commission-based appointment but required only Senate confirmation. A statute (R.I. Gen. Laws 8-16.1-6) provides that the list provided by the commission is to be made up of between 3-5 names.

From 2008 to 2015 governors were not limited to just those 3-5 names. Under laws enacted annually from 2008 to 2014 (HB 7829 of 2008, HB 5567 of 2009, SB 2645 of 2010, SB 686 of 2011, HB 8043 of 2012, SB 471 of 2013, and HB 8006 of 2014) anyone vetted and approved by the JNC for a judgeship would be eligible for any other judgeship of the same court for 5 years. The program lapsed on July 1, 2015 when HB 6307 failed to be enacted to give the program yet another 1-year extension.

South Carolina

South Carolina is one of only two states (Virginia is the other) in which the legislature elects judges with no involvement by the governor. In 1997 the state’s constitution was amended to require the creation of a “Judicial Merit Selection Commission” to recommend nominees to the legislature for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Court, and Family Court. The commission’s membership and processes were left up to the legislature to set. The law enacted to implement the constitutional provision (S.C. Code Ann. § 2-19-80) requires the release by the commission of “the three candidates whom it considers best qualified.”

There have been over two dozen pieces of legislation to alter the number of names released by the commission. Almost all focused on the release of all qualified names, with “qualified” meaning either a) that the individual meets the minimum requirements for the position (age, attorney, etc.) or b) the person was “qualified” to serve in the opinion of the commission.

The practice for the better part of a decade was for the House to pass the “all qualified names” provision and for the Senate to either reject it or amend it to “no more than 3 qualified names” but with a provision that more than 3 names could be sent if two-thirds of the commission approved. This House/Senate split occurred in the 2003/2004 (HB 4734), 2005/2006 (HB 2079), and 2007/2008 (HB 3463 & SB 40) sessions. The Senate passed its own standalone version (3 names, more if two-thirds of commission approved) in 2007 (SB 40) that the House failed to act on.

The matter lay dormant until the 2015/2016 session when again the House passed an “all qualified” names bill (HB 3979); the Senate has yet to act on the legislation.

South Dakota

The state’s constitution was amended in 1980 to provide that vacancies in the Supreme Court are to be filled from a list of “two or more persons” nominated by the judicial qualifications commission. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Utah

The state’s constitution was amended in 1985 to provide for a commission-system with senate confirmation for all courts of record (Supreme, Court of Appeals, District and Juvenile). The list given to the governor for these courts must consist “of at least three nominees.” A statutory change in 2008 (SB 72) brought the state’s other courts (Justice) into a commission system. The Justice Court Commission was required to submit “at least two names to the appointing authority.”

For the courts of record, a 1995 statute (former Utah Code § 20A-12-105, recodified in 2008 as § 78A-10-104) provided the appellate commission was to provide the governor at least 5 names for each vacancy while trial court commissions were to provide at least 3 names. In 2010 this was further amended (SB 289) to provide that the appellate court commission is to submit 7 names to the governor, while the trial court commissions are to send 5. SB 108 of the same year had similar provisions. A 1998 effort (SJR 3) would have allowed the governor to reject a list of names from the commission and request a new list. There was no limit to the number of rejections.

For the Justice Courts, a 2015 proposal (SB 141) increased the number of names from “at least two” to “at least three” for the local appointing authority to choose from. The bill was signed into law in March of this year.

Vermont

The state’s constitution provides the governor is to nominate Supreme Court and other judges (other than Probate judges) from a list provided by a judicial nominating body to be created by the legislature. A state statute (4 VSA 602) provided that the Judicial Nominating Board is to submit all “candidates” to the governor for consideration; this was amended in 2009 (HB 470) to “qualified candidates”. Other than the 2009 amendment, no recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Wyoming

The state’s constitution as amended in 1972 provides for a judicial nominating commission for the supreme court, district courts and any other courts the legislature decides. The commission is to give the governor “a list of three nominees” for vacancies. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.