Judicial Vacancy Commissions

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.

Boosting the minimum years admitted to the bar to be a judge

Several weeks ago we looked several states looking to do away with non-attorney judges. Other states are looking at increasing the minimum number of years an attorney must practice law (or at least be admitted to the bar) before becoming a judge. For example, Alabama in 2009 passed a law (SB 28) requiring a minimum number of years to serve on certain courts: 10 for the appellate courts (Supreme, Civil Appeals, Criminal Appeals), 5 for Circuit, 3 for District.

In 2010, Illinois, which currently requires only that a would-be jurist be admitted to the bar, is considering requiring (HCA 57)  a set number of years or practice before reaching certain courts: 15 years for their  Supreme Court, 12 for their Appellate Court, and 10 for their Circuit Court.

Also active this year, New Jersey is considering (SCR 83) increasing from 10 years to 15  its existing minimum  for the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court (i.e. the state’s intermediate appellate court), and the Superior Court.