With almost entire state’s judiciary on 2014 ballot, Kentucky judicial campaign public financing bill up for discussion

Back in December before the session started, I noted a Kentucky bill (HB 21) that would have established a clean judicial elections fund for use in races for the state’s  Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Court, or  District Court. The bill would have permitted the Supreme Court to require members of the Kentucky Bar Association to submit an annual fixed amount not to exceed $25 to be dedicated to the clean judicial elections fund. It went into the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments & Intergovernmental Affairs Committee and went no further.

One of the two main sponsors, Jim Wayne, will be discussing the bill with  a local chapter of the League of Women Voters on April 25 (h/t Gavel Grab). Along with him will be Jefferson Circuit Judge Fred Cowan, former state attorney general and also a former state representative.

2014 is going to be a critical year for judicial elections in the state. The state’s supreme court serves staggered 8 year terms. As a result,under normal conditions the Supreme Court cannot be overturned in a single judicial election. However, this is not a sure-thing; due to vacancies, 5 of the 7 justices were up in 2006.

While such a (potential) overturning of the state’s supreme court in 2006 was an accident of timing, the same potential exists in the lower courts by design. Because of a lack of staggered terms, in 2014, all 14 Court of Appeals, 146 Circuit Court, and 116 District Court judges will be on the ballot.

New Hampshire bill to consolidate lower courts into new Circuit Court faces final legislative hurdle today

According to the Twitter feed for the NH Bar, HB 609 which would replace the current probate courts, district courts, and judicial branch family division with a single Circuit Court is set for a Senate floor vote today. I detailed the bill when it was in the House here and little has changed since then. The resulting court system would consist of the Supreme Court, the pre-existing general jurisdiction Superior Court, and the new Circuit Court consisting of a probate division, a district division, and a family division. Because the change would be exclusively statutory, several pre-existing state constitutional sections are addressed. For example, references to “a judge of probate” in Articles 80 and 81 instead are found to reference a circuit court judge assigned to the probate division. The positions of full-time marital masters would be converted to a full-time judicial position, subject to funding approval.

From an electoral perspective, there is little change; judicial officers would still be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the executive council. The one change: the state’s 10 elected registers of probate would be converted into appointees of the administrative judge of the circuit court for the circuit.

This has the potential for an exceptionally quick impact on the state’s judiciary. The effective date of the law (if passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor) is July 1, 2011. On that date “the New Hampshire circuit court shall be operational based upon a plan of implementation developed by the administrative judge of the circuit court in consultation with and approved by the supreme court.”

Update 4/20/11 @ 2:39 PM According to the NH Bar Twitter feed, the bill was approved by the Senate on a voice vote and is expected to be signed by the Governor in short order.

Minnesota bill would, among other things, force judges to promise they will remain in office their full term or forfeit 25% of their pensions

I noted an interesting Minnesota combination bill SB 627 (which now has a House companion, HB 1536) which would increase mandatory retirement age for judges but do away with the “incumbent” designation on ballots for judges seeking reelection.

Another interesting combination bill has been introduced, this time in the House, HB 1474.

Section 1 ends the practice of election by district. Instead, judges would be elected from the individual county or judicial election precinct in which they have their chambers within a judicial district, rather than by the district as a whole. For counties/judicial election precincts with no judge currently, the Commission on Judicial Selection would assign a judge.

The remaining sections make a unique linkage between service and retirement.

Under Section 3 of the bill, any judge or justice seeking reelection must file a “commitment in writing” that the justice or judge will serve in the office until:

  1. the mandatory retirement date (changed, see below), or
  2. a newly created “optional retirement date” (see below), or
  3. the disability date, or
  4. appointed to another office of government, or
  5. unable to serve due to a compelling physical or personal reason.

Section 5 then defines a “compelling physical or personal reason”  as “a physical condition that renders the judge unable to perform the duties of judicial office or the need to care for a member of the judge’s immediate family.” The Court of Appeals (and NOT the Supreme Court) would make the determination of whether a “compelling physical or personal reason” exists. Because this bill would apply to all state judge/justices, this could (would?) result in a lower court ruling on the status of a higher court’s membership.

A judge or justice who retires/resigns without that “compelling physical or personal reason” (whether they made the commitment or not, thus covering first-term judges/justices) would forfeit 25% of their retirement annuity. The only exception would be if the judge is appointed to serve on another court, the judge retires due to a disability or the aforementioned “compelling physical or personal reasons”.

Section 4 also addresses resignations/vacancies, providing first that the mere announcement of an intention to resign does not create a judicial vacancy. More critically, the provisions create the title or designation of “placeholder” to refer to anyone appointed by the governor to fill a judicial vacancy. The person would specifically not be “a prior office holder or the successor of a prior office holder,” thus presumably not eligible to have the word “incumbent” next to their name come election time. If a placeholder then dies/resigns and the election is still more than 12 months away, the governor would be free to appoint anyone “learned in the law” and who meets all other criteria for holding judicial office to serve until a successor elected. If the election is less than 12 months away, the office would remain vacant.

Section 6 extends the mandatory retirement date of from the *end of month* in which judge turns 70 to *end of year of a general election* after a judge turns 70, while Section 7 creates an “optional retirement date” of December 31 of a general election year.

HB 1474 is currently in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee.

Special Edition on Merit Selection now out

There is little doubt that this is the single most active year with respect to merit selection in decades.

In light of today’s expected Florida House votes on altering the state’s merit selection system, Gavel to Gavel will be releasing this special edition that focuses on all such efforts to end, modify, or adopt merit selection in the states.

The regular, weekly edition of Gavel to Gavel will appear later today.

Omnibus bill week 2011: Indiana HB 1266 would restructure trial court jurisdictions

Necessity is the mother of invention, or, in recent history, trial court consolidation. Last year, it was Vermont consolidating its Probate, Family, and District Courts into the state’s Superior Court. This year, it looks like New Hampshire will be the state to attempt outright trial court consolidation into a new Circuit Court. Indiana, however, may achieve much of the same effect through HB 1266.

Circuit, Superior, and Probate Courts

Indiana has three types of “general” jurisdiction courts: the constitutionally created Circuit Courts, the statutorily created Superior Courts, and (in St. Joseph’s County only), a statutorily created Probate Court. For an overview of what counties have what (and why this came about) the Indiana’s Judiciary has a “Know Your Courts” review and interactive chart.

Circuit and Superior Courts have, generally, the same jurisdictions with respect to civil and criminal matters (as the Indiana Judiciary’s website notes, the differing names are “due to accidents of legislative history and local custom, not true differences in the nature or purpose of the courts.”) Rather than differing from court type to court type, the real difference is in counties. “The cases these courts hear can vary tremendously from county to county.”

HB 1266 would effectively end these distinctions. All circuit courts, superior courts, and probate court(s) would have:

  1. original and concurrent jurisdiction in all civil cases and in all criminal cases
  2. de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from city and town courts; and
  3. in Marion County, de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from township small claims courts

County-level Circuit Court Consolidation

Some Indiana counties have but Circuit and Superior Courts, although as noted the judges of these courts exercise essentially the same jurisdiction (for a list of who has what, click here) HB 1266 would consolidate the Superior Court judges in three counties (Clark, Henry, and Madison) into the Circuit Court.

County Courts

Indiana had, at one point, justice of the peace courts, juvenile courts, criminal courts, and magistrate courts, many if not most presided over by non-attorneys. In the 1970s these courts were consolidated into County Courts, but those courts themselves eventually gave way to presence of the Circuit and Superior Courts. The last County Court was abolished by their respective counties in 2009 (The state still maintains City and Town courts). HB 1266 would repeal the statute authorizing the County Courts altogether.

Merit Selection

At least some of the aforementioned County Courts were not utterly disbanded and were instead made into divisions of the county’s Superior Court. The result was a somewhat electoral patchwork quilt: while in general the Superior Court judges of a particular county might be elected in a one fashion (partisan election, merit selection) the County Division judges might be elected another. Lake Superior Court County Division had such a split: Superior Court judges were selected via a merit selection system, but the county division remained partisan elections. HB 1266 would reconcile the two, putting county division judges into the existing merit selection system.

Retirement Age for Judges

Presently, Superior Court judges have a mandatory retirement age of 70 or 75 (depending on which county). HB 1266 would eliminate the mandatory retirement age for all Superior Court judges.

Commission on Courts

The state’s Commission on Courts was created to consider policy involving the court systems and the creation of new courts. It makes recommendations to the legislature on its own initiative and may also be directed to examine issues at the direction of the legislature. (For details, click here). The statute authorizing the Commission is set to expire June 30, 2011. HB 1266 would extend it until June 30, 2015.

Florida: Seven House bills affecting courts “special ordered” to the floor for Thursday April 14

The Florida House Rules Committee yesterday specially directed some bills to the House floor, including several that I’ve been tracking lately. Among them:

Additional judiciary related bills potentially up on Thursday as part of the special order include:

  • HB 7023 Repeals provisions relating to regular terms of Supreme Court and circuit courts. Allows Supreme Court to set terms of court for Supreme Court, district courts of appeal, & circuit courts. Provides that appellate courts may withdraw mandate within 120 days after issuance.
  • HB 7113 Repeals provisions relating to restricting practice of law by retired justices, requirement to appoint Clerk of Supreme Court, requirement that clerk have office in Supreme Clerk Building, requirement that clerk perform duties as directed by court, & provision by which rules of court supersede statutes.
  • HB 7115 Repeals provisions relating to judicial census commissions. Until 1973, the Florida Constitution provided for one circuit judge for every 50,000 people in a judicial circuit. The statute related to judicial census commissions is no longer needed because the Constitution has been amended to provide for different method of determining the number of circuit judges.

 

Omnibus bill week 2011: Iowa SB 326

I mentioned back in January that a 2010 omnibus bill to overhaul numerous provisions of law related to the Iowa judiciary was partially vetoed, but reintroduced this year (see here).

The bill, now known as SB 326 of 2011, has been the subject of some substantial legislative ping-pong between the two chambers.

Senate

Originally, SB 326’s provisions included:

Filling vacancies – Grants authority to the chief justice to delay the nomination of a Supreme Court justice, court of appeals judge, district judge, district associate judge, associate juvenile judge, or associate probate judge magistrate for budgetary reasons. Grants authority to delay nomination for magistrates with certain limits.

Judicial allocation – Authorizes chief justice to apportion a trial judge vacancy to another judicial election district upon finding a substantial disparity exists in the allocation of judgeships and judicial workload between judicial election districts and a majority of the judicial council approves the apportionment. Requires state court administrator apportion magistrates throughout the state using a case-related workload formula in addition to the other criteria already listed in statute. Permits the chief judge to assign a magistrate to hold court outside of the magistrate’s county of appointment for the orderly administration of justice.

Residence – Requires district associate judge reside in the judicial election district in which he or she serves (currently must reside in county). Allows a magistrate to be a resident of a county contiguous to the county of appointment during the magistrate’s term of office.

Terms – Specifies that a senior judge, upon attaining the age of 78, may serve a one-year term and a succeeding one-year term at the discretion of the Supreme Court. Currently, a senior judge, upon attaining the age of 78, may serve a two-year term at the discretion of the Supreme Court.

Senate amendments deleted the requirement that the state court administrator apportion magistrates throughout the state using a case-related workload formula but added a provision limiting the chief justice’s power to delay filling vacancies to 1 year per vacancy and no more than 8 delayed vacancies at any given time. The Senate adopted the entire bill on a 50-0 vote.

House

Several House members who had earlier vowed to impeach members of the Supreme Court and end merit selection for the Court of Appeals, attempted to add an amendment to SB 326 that would have also ended merit selection for the Court of Appeals. Unlike in Kansas, where such an attempt to add an amendment ending merit selection was ruled germane to an unrelated bill, this effort was ruled not germane by the House Speaker. Undaunted, the sponsor asked for unanimous consent to allow the amendment. When that failed, he moved to suspend the rules and allow for the adoption of the amendment. That effort failed on a 6-89 vote. For additional details, check out this post from Gavel Grab.

The House did, however, adopt two amendments.

  • The first matched HB 242 and would require the state’s governor appoint at least one district judicial nominating commission member from each county unless there are fewer counties than commissioners. Given that the commissions are five member panels, and only Judicial District 7 is a 5-county district, this has the effect of prohibiting any district nominating commission from having more than two members from the same county.
  • The second requires all commission members chosen by the governor to serve staggered terms.

The House approved its version, with the House amendments, 93-2. The two House members voting against (Reps. Alons & Shaw) were among the four leaders of the effort to impeach the Supreme Court justices and had put forth the amendment to end merit selection for the Court of Appeals noted above.

Back to Senate

The Senate accepted the House amendments on April 11, but added one of its own. Under existing law, “no more than a simple majority” of district judicial nominating commission members appointed “shall be of the same gender.” The latest senate amendment would change the wording to “A simple majority of the commissioners appointed shall be of the same gender.”

Back to House

This latest version of SB 326 was sent back to the House on April 11.