Two states, both having dealt recently with contentious elections, are actively debating the use of Judicial Vacancy Commissions. While they share similar names, the two are dramatically different.
Alabama’s version builds on its pre-existing system where counties are allowed to opt-in into a system that allows for interim judicial vacancies to be filled by a commission that submits names to the Governor. The selected individual serves only the remaining years left in the term, but may run for a full term in the regular, partisan election system. So far, only 8 of Alabama’s 67 counties have the program, with a special constitutional amendment required for each county. However HB 443 would amend the state’s constitution to provide for the use of such commissions in all counties of the state. It was approved as amended by the House Judiciary Committee 2/11/10.
While Alabama’s version is obligatory (the Governor must select from the list of names given by the commission to fill the temporary vacancy), West Virginia’s proposal is explicitly advisory only. HB 4036 and SB 223 would create a Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission to submit 2-5 names to the Governor when a vacancy occurred in any judicial office. The Governor would be under no obligation to make use of the list, but the list and most of the proceedings of the commission would be open to the public. The House version was approved by that chamber on 2/24/10 and is currently on the Senate floor, having been approved by the Senate Judiciary (3/8/10), and Finance (3/11/10) committees. Probably because of the advance of the House version, the Senate bill has not made it out of committee.
Earlier today the Senate Rules Committee approved SB 70, a bill to establish retention elections for judges. The bill also expands terms of office from six to eight years and creates a judicial performance commission. the commission must issue in the year a judge seeks retention ean valuation of “well-qualified,” “qualified,” or “unqualified”. The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.
SB 80, which would sets contributions limits for judicial candidates, made it out of the Senate in 2009 and was today approved by the House State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee. The committee made some amendments but retained the Senate’s limits: $2,000 in an election year and $500 in other years. It is now on the House floor and, if approved, would have to be re-approved by the Senate.
Washington State’s proposed public financing system for their Supreme Court elections advances out of its first House Committee, over a year after introduction. HB 1738 of 2009 had its first hearing in March 2009 and lay in the House Committee on State Government & Tribal Affairs until February 2010 when it finally passed and sent on to House Ways & Means. Its Senate counterpart, SB 5912, had a similar resuscitation, finally making it out of its Committee on Government Operations & Elections February 4. According to the Spokesman-Review’s blog, the state’s Lieutenant Governor has ruled, as President of the Senate, the additional $3 charge for filing fees is a tax. Under Washington law, taxes need a two-thirds majority of both chambers, while fees require a simple majority.
Mississippi has seven different types of courts. Five of these use nonpartisan elections (Supreme, Appeal, Circuit, Chancery, County), one uses a straight appointment (Municipal) and one continues to use partisan elections (Justice). Currently, the state’s legislature is considering several bills that take entirely different courses of action for these judicial races.
HB 304 and HB 409 would change Justice Court races, along with those for chancery clerk, circuit clerk, and all other county offices, into nonpartisan races.
HB 460 and HB 494 on the other hand would convert all nonpartisan judicial elections into partisan ones.
Meanwhile, HCR 22 would change the Supreme Court into a modified appointment system. Under the constitutional amendment, justices would be nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. After serving their full term, they would be subject to a yes/no retention election.
It remains to be seen what changes, if any, the legislature opts to make.
On January 21, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The decision may be found here.
Citizens United, along with the Caperton case from 2009, may very well alter the playing field for judicial campaigns for decades to come. While several state courts of last resort have attempted to address issues through the judicial canons, the state legislatures have not been idle. This special edition of Gavel to Gavel looks at the legislation introduced in 2009 and thus far in 2010 that contend with Judicial Campaign Contributions and Expenditures.
The Special Edition can be found here.