Oklahoma: House and Senate advance plans to change structure of state’s supreme court, end merit selection

The Oklahoma House and Senate this week advanced bills to change the way the state’s appellate courts in general, and their supreme court in particular, are selected and structured.

Supreme Court Districts

On the House side, HB 1925 approved 77-16 would change the Supreme Court judicial districts (discussed here), creating 5 district-specific and 4 at-large seats on court.

  • 5 justices would be selected, 1 for each Congressional District as constituted on November 1, 2017. For transition purposes, the current seats from Districts 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 would turn into Congressional-District based seats.
  • 4 justices would be selected at-large, however 2 justices must come from counties with a population of less than 75,000. The current seats from Districts 2, 7, 8, and 9 would transition to at-large.

Justices would still have to face statewide yes/no retention elections.

SB 213 approved 44-1 also addresses Supreme Court judicial districts. Under that plan

  • 5 justices would be selected, 1 for each Congressional District as constituted on November 1, 2017.
  • 4 justices would be selected at-large. There is no mention of selection from rural counties

Appellate Court Selection

On the selection side, the Senate advanced two constitutional amendments.

SJR 43 approved 37-8 ends merit/commission selection for the state’s appellate courts. Instead, the governor would nominate an individual and submit his/her name to the Judicial Nominating Commission for a review as “qualified” or “not qualified”. The nominee would then be subject to Senate confirmation and yes/no retention elections.

SJR 44 approved 38-7 would keep the state’s merit/commission selection system but require the Judicial Nominating Commission send the Governor 5 names (currently 3) for consideration and allow the Governor to ask for another list, for a total of 10 names. It requires the nominee be subject to Senate confirmation and provides if Senate fails to act within certain time frame(s) the nominee is confirmed by default. Once confirmed, the judges/justices would be subject to yes/no retention elections.

Montana: bill calls for creation of “Supreme Court Candidate Public Forum Program” to help inform voters

A plan to expand public information about Montana Supreme Court races has been filed in that state’s House.

First, some background.

Montana uses a unique election system for their Supreme Court.

  • For initial terms, justices run for a particular seat (e.g. Associate Justice #2, Chief Justice) in a non-partisan race.
  • For additional terms, if a justice runs in a contest race, it is again non-partisan. If the justice runs unopposed, the justice must still go before voters, but in a yes/no retention election. So, for example, in 2016 Chief Justice Mike McGrath ran unopposed, so had to go up for a retention vote (he won with an 82% yes vote).

Under HB 636 as filed the Montana Secretary of State would administer the Supreme Court Candidate Public Forum Program and invite all candidates to participate. The program is designed to provide increased public access to information about candidates for justice and chief justice of the Montana supreme court.

The Program would pay for candidates to travel to forums across the state and pay for the space needed to host, publicize, and broadcast the events. The Secretary of State would “arrange forums in a manner that emphasizes and respects the nonpartisan nature of the supreme court while providing electors important information about candidates.”

Funds for the Program would come from 2 sources

  • An increase in filing fees in appellate and civil cases
  • Voluntary income tax refund contributions up to $5 (individual) or $10 (joint) from state income tax forms. Those who owe taxes could contribute $1.

HB 636 has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

North Carolina: governor vetoes bill to shift trial court races back to partisan contests; override vote set

A plan to switch North Carolina’s trial court races back to partisan contests was vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper. In his veto message for HB 100 Cooper indicated

North Carolina wants its judges to be fair and impartial, and partisan politics has no place on the judges’ bench. We need less politics in the courtroom, not more.

Judges make tough decisions on child abuse, divorce, property disputes, drunk driving, domestic violence and other issues that should be free from politics. This bill reverses that progress.

We should let people elect judges based on their experience and ability to do the job, not which party they pick.

I am also concerned that judges who have chosen to register as unaffiliated voters so as to avoid partisan politics now have a difficult path to getting on the ballot.

A vote to override the veto in the House is set for March 22. The original vote in the House was 65-51 with 1 not voting and 3 absent; proponents would need 3/5ths of those present and voting (60 votes) to override in the House. In the Senate the vote was 32-15 with 3 absent; they would 30 to override.

Delaware: Constitutional amendment would give governor & senate more time to consider judicial nominees, allow for prospective appointment

A constitutional amendment to give Delaware’s governor and senate more time to consider judicial nominations has been filed for the second leg in its adoption process.

Currently, the constitution provides the governor makes nominations and the Senate confirms for the state’s top courts (all but Alderman’s). Since 1977 every governor has used an advisory Judicial Nominating Commission. The governor and senate, however, are on a timetable:

  • The governor must submit a name to the Senate within 60 days after the occurrence of a vacancy.
  • The Senate, if in session, takes up the name. If not in session, the Governor must within 60 days convene the Senate to take up the nomination.
  • If an incumbent judge remains in office, they can holdover up to 60 days after the expiration of their term.

SB 25 of 2017 would effectively extend these deadlines and allow for prospective appointments if a vacancy is set to occur; the current constitution is silent on the matter.

  • The governor could submit a name to the Senate “from 30 days before to 90 days after” the vacancy happens.
  • The Senate could also be called back into session “from 30 days before to 90 days after” the vacancy happens.
  • Incumbent judges could holdover in office up to 90 days.

The constitutional amendment (then called SB 275 of 2016) was approved unanimously by both chambers last year. Under the state’s constitution, the legislature must approve it a second time after an election (2017/2018 session) and it does NOT have to go to voters for approval.

 

Texas: bill to end straight-ticket voting, including for judicial races, clears first committee; former judge noted impact of STV on judiciary

A Texas bill that would end straight-ticket voting (STV) for all  races, including judicial ones, cleared the House Elections Committee earlier this week.

The move to end straight-ticket voting comes after the state’s chief justice call to end the practice for judicial races in his state of the judiciary address and backing by the Speaker of the House.

During testimony at least one judge noted the impact straight-ticket voting has on the judiciary.

Another notable witness was Erin Lunceford, a Harris County judge, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2015, who said she was swept out of office with partisan tides in the 2016 general election.

Lunceford, who ran as a Republican, in a county that voted majority Democrat, said she lost to her Democrat opponent, who has never even tried a case before.

She said without taking into account those who voted straight-ticket, she would have won the election by a 10-point margin.

HB 25 cleared the Elections Committee on a 5-2 party-line vote. The bill’s Senate counterpart SB 2175 has yet to be taken up. A bill to end straight-ticket voting for judicial races only (SB 1989) also has not been taken up.

Texas: bills to end straight-ticket voting for judicial races filed; hearing on bill today to eliminate straight-ticket voting for all races

Several bills that would end straight-ticket voting for judicial races, called for by the state’s chief justice in his state of the judiciary address and backed by the Speaker of the House, have now been filed. One in particular filed late last week would focus exclusively on judicial races.

SB 1989 would impact only races for courts with elected judges (i.e. all courts but Municipal Courts). Some prior bills past only affected some courts.

Other bills (HB 25 / SB 2175 and the duplicate HB 433) appear to eliminate straight-ticket voting for all races, judicial included. HB 25 is set for a hearing today in the House Elections Committee.

 

Washington: modified version of 2015 bill to create Tax Court refiled, this time with a constitutional amendment

A 2015 plan to create a Tax Court in Washington (discussed here) composed of sitting Court of Appeals judges was hobbled with concerns that the state’s constitution didn’t give the legislature the power to create such a court. Now the 2017 version of the plan is back, this time with a constitutional amendment and some changes.

SJR 8209 amends the state’s judiciary article to authorize the creation of a Tax Court and spells out in general its jurisdiction. It provides that decisions of the Tax Court would go directly to the state supreme court. Finally, it provides that the number, election, terms, and compensation of Tax Court judges would be left to the legislature.

SB 5866 fleshes out SJR 8209’s provisions and appears to be similar to the 2015 plan. It abolishes the existing State Board of Tax Appeals in favor of the new Tax Court.

The Court would be made up of two “departments”.

  • The Main Department would consist of 3 judges who may individually or as a panel hear tax appeals. All decisions of the Main Department would have to be rendered within 6 months of submission, although the court could extend this for good cause an additional 3 months.

Unlike the 2015 plan, which called for using Court of Appeals judges, the 2017 plan would have the 3 judges elected to the Court in their own right to 6 year terms. It appears the judges would be elected by Court of Appeals district.

The judges would have to have “at least five years’ experience as an attorney practicing in Washington state and local tax law.” A similar provision created some controversy in 2015 when it was questioned who would determine whether a person met this requirement.

  • The Commissioner Department would be for “cost-effective and informal” reviews and would include a voluntary mediation system. Commissioners would be appointed by the judges of the Main Department.

A hearing on the implementing legislation (SB 5866) is set for tomorrow (March 14) in the Senate Law & Justice Committee. A hearing on both the bill and constitutional amendment are set for March 16.