Judicial Removal Week: Judge Thomas Bartheld (OK)

Efforts to remove Judge Thomas Bartheld, an Oklahoma state District Court Judge, started even before the 2010 session began. Media reports of legislators planning his ouster made the news in June 2009 after Judge Bartheld sentenced a man who had pled no contest of raping and sodomizing a 5-year-old girl to 20 years in prison, 19 of which are suspended. The case made national headlines, with Bill O’Reilly mentioning the judge by name on his show seven times. Judge Bartheld, however, noted that “The district attorney, child’s family, advocates and the defendant all agreed to this [plea bargain].”

HR 1065, filed in August 2009 for the 2010 session, asks the Trial Division of the Court on the Judiciary to assume jurisdiction and institute proceedings for the removal of Judge Bartheld from office. Additionally, the same legislator has introduced HJR 1079 granting the state legislature the authority to review, amend, and otherwise change criminal sentences handed down by judges and HJR 1072 allowing the state legislature to impeach District Court Judges like Bartheld. Oklahoma’s current constitutional provision only allows for the impeachment of “the Governor and other elective state officers, including the Justices of the Supreme Court… [and]…Judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals.”

A poll conducted in January 2010 by the Tulsa World, however, finds most Oklahomans are unsure of these actions. While 57% find Oklahoma judges are “too lenient” in criminal cases, the state divided 45/46% on whether it should be easier for the state legislature to remove judges.

Judicial Removal Week: 2010

Over the last several years, a variety of efforts have been made to remove judges from the bench for their decisions. A Gavel to Gavel Focus piece from 2007 (located here) examined many of those efforts. Since 2007, few similar attempts were made, however 2009 and 2010 are proving a upsurge in impeachment or other removal attempts, with five such efforts.  This week, we’ll be examining the legislative activity surrounding them.

Florida’s Push-Pull Legislation

The budget crises in the United States are a, if not the, central focus for all state judiciaries in this legislative session. Over the years, there have been several suggested solutions to address the problem of how to fund the third branch. The Conference of Chief Justices, for example, passed a resolution in 1973, amid the mid-1970s recession, that  “This conference supports the financing of [the courts] by an automatic  constitutional appropriation of a percentage of the General Fund Budget of each state.” (73-A-2)

Into this comes Florida’s HB 735 and HB 737.

HB 737 creates a Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to be administered by the Supreme Court and into which would be placed an automatic, guaranteed 1 percent of the state’s General Revenue Fund. The bill also declares “the judicial branch of state government shall be held harmless in years of fiscal deficits in the state as a matter of public safety” and permits revenues in the Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to remain in the fund at the end of every fiscal year.

HB 737 requires passage of HB 735  “or similar legislation”. HB 735 requires a retroactive  elimination of judicial immunity in a variety of specified contexts dealing with court proceedings.  Additionally, it expands the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and requires JQC investigation panels include at least 5 “common citizen electors” as a staff committee, none of whom may be “officers of the court” and who must prepare a separate report on the investigation that is to be made publicly available. Both the state courts system in general, and the JQC in particular, would be subject to an immediate audit by the state’s Auditor General and the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability conduct full audit review of commission, a review to be repeated every two years.

Additionally, HB 735 requires the Supreme Court create a plan “promoting civics for residents of this state, together with education concerning the judicial branch in order to develop trust and confidence in the state’s judicial system.” It also creates unified family courts, teen courts, drug courts and mental health courts in each judicial circuit.

The Florida legislature is due to come into full session March 2.

Vermont: Restructuring an entire state’s judiciary

For nearly a century, the states have debated whether and to what extent their state court systems should be unified. Even the word itself has been the subject of ontological discourse (“What does “unified” mean, anyway?) As the ongoing budget crises force courts to review the way in which they deliver their core services, unification (however defined) is once again being submitted as a possible solution.

HB 470 comes out of the recommendations of the state’s Commission on Judicial Operation which has said on its website that “Vermonters can no longer afford the inefficiencies of our outdated court system. ” The Commission itself was created at the request of the legislature to “reduce the judiciary’s budget and enhance the efficient and effective delivery of judicial services.”

The bill would consolidate judicial functions by eliminating the Probate, Family, and District Courts (click here for current court structure chart, courtesy of the NCSC Court Statistics Project) and “establish[ing] a unified court system under the administrative control of the Supreme Court.” This unified system would consist of the Supreme Court and Superior Court, the later to absorb the Probate, Family and District Courts. This new Superior Court would have four divisions: civil, criminal, family, and probate, which would have the same subject matter jurisdiction currently had by the current Superior, District, Family, and Probate courts. Additionally, the state’s probate and judicial districts would be redrawn with districts no longer drawn along county lines. Moreover, all judges of the new Superior Court would be required to be attorneys, a qualification currently not mandatory for Probate Court judges. Finally, the state’s “assistant judges” (non-attorneys who may serve as “side judges” on cases) would not longer be allowed  any judicial, adjudicative functions.

It remains to be seen whether this legislation will advance, and if so how far, before the legislature adjourns sometime in late April.

Coming Up: Week of February 1, 2010

Session Starts
Oklahoma – February 1
Connecticut – February 3
Minnesota – February 4

Hearings/Committee Activity

Nebraska LB 727 Permits retired judge who agrees to serve a minimum number of temporary duty days per year as set by the Supreme Court may receive a stipend. In Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Maryland SB 119 (Constitutional Amendment) Increasing minimum amount of civil suit entitled to jury trial from $10,000 to $20,000. In Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.