Oklahoma: House and Senate appear to near agreement on restructuring state’s supreme court seats; bills specify 2 at-large justices come from counties with a population under 75,000

A plan to redistrict the Oklahoma Supreme Court appears nearing House and Senate agreement, with the House’s plan to require justices from more rural counties winning the day.

Currently the 9 members of the Supreme Court are appointed from 9 districts, but run statewide for yes/no retention elections.

HB 1925 as approved by the House last month and by the Senate Judiciary committee earlier this week would provide that starting in November 2017

  • 5 justices would be appointed, 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 appointed 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.

The justices would still run statewide for yes/no retention elections.

 

North Carolina: Plans to shrink Court of Appeals clear Senate committee; already approved by full House

Plans to reduce the North Carolina Court of Appeals from 15 members down to 12 have cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee having been previously approved by the full House.

HB 239 would reduce the court from 15 to 12 by attrition; no judges would lose their office. Opponents claim it is a political move by the Republican controlled legislature to avoid giving the Democratic governor the power to fill interim vacancies set to occur as several members of the court are forced into mandatory retirement in the next few years. Proponents argue that that Court of Appeals’ caseload has dropped thus there isn’t the need for as many judges. They also note provisions in the bill that shift some cases directly to the Supreme Court.

HB 239 now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.

Louisiana legislator wants to expand Supreme Court from 7 to 9 members by dividing 2 existing judicial districts; would require 2/3rds vote of the legislature

Following expansion by 2 seats to the Arizona and Georgia Supreme Courts in the last 2 years, a member of the Louisiana House is moving to expand by law that state’s top court by 2 seats, but needs a supermajority to do it.

As I noted when this came up in Georgia, Louisiana is generally a “specific number” state: the state’s constitution specifies that the court is to be made up of 7 justices, or more specifically a “chief justice and six associate justices.” Moreover, justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court are elected by district.

However, the legislature is free, by 2/3rds vote, to alter the districts and the number of justices

The state shall be divided into at least six supreme court districts, and at least one judge shall be elected from each. The districts and the number of judges assigned to each on the effective date of this constitution are retained, subject to change by law enacted by two-thirds of the elected members of each house of the legislature.

Into this comes HB 406 of 2017. It would amend the existing statute (R.S. 13:101) to provide for 9 supreme court districts, dividing District 4 in a District 4-A and District 4-B and dividing District 5 into a 5-A and 5-B, with 5-B made entirely of East Baton Rouge Parish and 5-A of the rest of the existing District 5.

The bill has been prefiled in the House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs.

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.

North Carolina: in last 24 hours House has advanced major changes to state’s judiciary; return to partisan trial court races now going to governor

The North Carolina House in the last 24 hours has adopted major changes to the state’s judiciary, already sending some to the governor’s desk.

HB 100 as amended by the Senate would return races for Superior and District Courts to partisan races. The legislature in a late 2016 special session had already returned that state’s appellate races back to partisan ones. The House, having agreed to a Senate amendment, will now send HB 100 to the governor. It is unclear what the reaction will be, since the governor was the lead author of the bill making Superior Court races nonpartisan in the first place.

HB 239 approved by the full House a few hours ago is a plan to reduce the state’s Court of Appeals from 15 judges down to 12. No judges would be forced out of office, instead when a seat becomes vacant for whatever reason “the seat is abolished.” It has been sent to the Senate.

HB 240 as discussed here removes the governor’s power to fill interim vacancies in District Court and transfers that power to the legislature itself. An amendment to have the Chief Judge of the District Court or Chief Justice (if there was no Chief Judge) make the pick instead was defeated. It has been ordered engrossed and will likely go to the Senate shortly.

HB 241 as discussed here removes the power of North Carolina governors to name Special Superior Court Judges (SSCJs) and transfers that power to the legislature itself. It has been sent to the Senate.

 

Adding to Texas’ unique court structure and organization: brand new Chancery trial and appellate court system re-introduced; Governor would select judges

A plan first introduced in 2015 and discussed here to create a Chancery Court system in Texas has been reintroduced to hear business cases. As I noted at the time, Texas already has one of the largest number of court types in the United States with 6 trial court types (Constitutional County, Statutory County, Statutory Probate, District, Justice of the Peace, and Municipal), 14 separate Courts of Appeal, including a unique two-courts-in-one-county (the 1st and 14th Court of Appeals both serve Houston) and two courts of last resort (civil: Supreme; criminal: Court of Criminal Appeals).

The latest iteration of the plan, introduced this year as HB 2594 would add not only a new trial court (Chancery made up of 7 judges) but a new intermediate appellate court (Court of Chancery Appeals made up of 7 judges). The Chancery Court would have concurrent jurisdiction with the state’s District Courts over 10 specified complex civil litigation actions or proceedings. The Court of Chancery Appeals would operate as effectively a specialized 15th intermediate appellate court for business cases only, something no other state has.

No state has a trial court whose sole purpose is to hear business or complex litigation cases. Even Delaware’s Chancery Court hears cases other the business ones such as disputes involving the purchase and sale of land and questions of title to real estate. Much more common is for the creation of special divisions of existing courts. For example, Delaware’s Superior Court makes use of a Complex Commercial Litigation Division.

Making things more unique is the method of judicial selection. Judges of both courts would not be subject to elections but instead chosen solely by the Governor from a list provided by a Chancery Court Nominations Advisory Council to which the Governor would name all the members. The Governor’s hand-picked Commission would have to provide 5 names for each court vacancy, however the Governor could ask for another 5 for a total of 10 names. Judges of the Court of Chancery Appeals would have to be existing Justices of a Court of Appeals. Judges so chosen would be subject to Senate confirmation.

There is also a fail-safe: in case this particular manner of judicial selection is found unconstitutional the court(s) would be staffed by sitting or retired justices who are appointed by the Supreme Court.

HB 2594 has been filed in the House but not yet assigned to a committee.

Oklahoma: House committee approves plan to change Supreme Court districts, create 5 district-specific seats and 4 at-large seats on court; 2 at-large picks must come from rural counties

The latest plan to change the way Oklahoma Supreme Court justices are picked cleared the House Judiciary – Civil and Environmental Committee yesterday.

Currently the state is divided into 9 Supreme Court districts. The state constitution requires a nominee for a vacancy on the court must be a “a qualified elector in the district for at least one year immediately prior to the date of filing or appointment.” If named to the court, they face voters statewide on a yes/no retention election.

That “qualified elector” issue has been somewhat of a contested point, as accusations have been made that the latest pick to the Supreme Court does not meet the criteria, see media reports regarding a pending lawsuit in the matter here. A special assistant attorney general has called the lawsuit “frivolous.” A hearing on that lawsuit is set for today.

Under HB 1925 as approved in committee the currently serving Supreme Court justices would continue to operate under the old 9-district system. New nominations/appointments would use a new two-part system.

  • 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 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.

As I noted last year when something similar came up in Washington, 10 states have some form of district system for their courts of last resort. Details on the 10 states below the fold.

Continue reading Oklahoma: House committee approves plan to change Supreme Court districts, create 5 district-specific seats and 4 at-large seats on court; 2 at-large picks must come from rural counties