Changing civil jurisdiction thresholds – Part 4

This fourth in a series of posts looks at legislative efforts to change the civil jurisdiction thresholds in state limited and general jurisdiction courts in the last decade. For a listing of all current civil jurisdiction thresholds, click here.

New Mexico to South Carolina below the fold.
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Efforts to change state constitutions to remove/alter Judicial Council or Supreme Court rulemaking authority – Part 5

This fifth installment looks at efforts to change state constitutional grants of rulemaking authority to courts of last resort, typically called the “supreme court”, or judicial councils.

My colleagues here at the National Center have a listing of all such provisions here.

New Mexico to South Carolina below the fold.

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New law makes Oklahoma only state where trial judges make more money than appellate judges

I’ve mentioned here and here the difficulty Oklahoma has had in terms of increasing judicial salaries through their linking process; the salaries of the state’s executive branch officials are equal to those of judicial officials. For example state law provides the Governor of Oklahoma’s salary is to be equal to that of the Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court. As a result, there hasn’t been an increase in judicial salaries since 2008 as lawmakers have rejected recommendations by the state’s Board on Judicial Compensation (such as HJR 1093 of 2012 rejecting a proposed 6% cost of living increase) out of concern they were also increasing executive branch salaries.

This year, however, the Oklahoma legislature approved, and the Governor has now signed, an increase in judicial salaries for trial judges only (i.e. District Court Judges, Associate District Court Judges, and Special District Court Judges) as HJR 1096 of 2014. This resulted in an increase for salaries for District Attorneys as their salaries are linked as 98% of District Judges.

The resulting salaries

District Court Judges $131,835
Associate District Court Judges $121,596
Special District Court Judges $111,356

However, there is no additional appropriations and the salary increases will have to come out of current budgets.

As my colleagues here at the National Center for State Court’s Judicial Salary Tracker have confirmed, this makes Oklahoma the only state where trial judges make more than appellate judges; judges of the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals will still make $130,410, or $1,425 less than that of a District Court Judge.

North Carolina Senate budget changes way/structure courts can strike laws as unconstitutional; fourth state in 4 years to consider such an effort

North Carolina’s Senate budget passed early Saturday morning included a myriad of changes to statutes, but one item in particular stands out as a Gavel to Gavel reader pointed out to me via email. The Senate-approved budget changes the way the state’s trial courts can strike down a law as unconstitutional, this apparently in anger at a recent decision by a trial judge striking down a 2013 NC law that would strip teachers of tenure in exchange for raises.

Under Section 18B.16.(a) of SB 744 as approved by the Senate any challenge to a statute on constitutional grounds would have to be tried or determined by panels of 3 Superior Court judges. The bill is based on a 2003 law that allows for challenges of redistricting lines to be heard by a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Wake County. This new version, however, goes beyond Wake County and requires that the three judge panel be selected by the Chief Justice from certain parts of the state (1 from First or Second Judicial Division, 1 from Seventh or Eighth, 1 from Third, Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth). Media coverage of the proposal can be found here.

As I noted when this came up in the context of Oklahoma, no state provides for three-judge panels to address the issue of striking ANY law as unconstitutional; where they do exist they usually are created to address a particular, limited subject such as redistricting (NC & WI) or school funding (KS). My review of those laws is here.

North Carolina is now the fourth state in 4 years to try to change the ways judges can strike down state laws or rule against the legislature.

  1. Oklahoma (2014)- HB 2686 would require a challenge to the constitutionality of any state statute be heard by a panel of the state’s main trial court (District). The panel would be made of “at least three district judges”: the original district judge assigned and “additional judges assigned randomly” to the case. The House approved the bill 55-33 in March 2014 but the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected it in April.
  2. Michigan (2013)- SB 652 began with anger by the legislature over decisions by the state’s Court of Claims (a specially designated judge of the Ingham County Circuit Court, where the capital is located) over Michigan’s emergency manager and right-to-work laws. Under SB 652 as enacted in the constitutionally minimum amount of time the Court of Claims is no longer an Ingham County Circuit Court Judge but 4 judges of the state’s Court of Appeals chosen by the Chief Justice. Details here and here.
  3. Wisconsin (2013/2014)- As introduced, AB 161 provided that a trial judge/court could declare a law unconstitutional but any order by the trial court prohibiting enforcement was automatically stayed and the law allowed to remain in effect if the state filed a petition for interlocutory review was filed within ten days after the entry of the order. It derived from a case in which a Dane County judge struck down a state law (Act 10) the weakened collective bargaining in the state. What was eventually enacted provided that “If a circuit court or a court of appeals enters an injunction, a restraining order, or any other final or interlocutory order suspending or restraining the enforcement of any statute of this state, the injunction, restraining order, or other final or interlocutory order is immediately appealable as a matter of right.”
  4. Oklahoma (2012)- SJR 84 was a constitutional amendment that would have stripped the state’s Supreme Court of the power to strike down any law passed by the legislature as unconstitutional. Instead, the legislature itself would create an “Ad Hoc Court of Constitutional Review” in such cases. It was filed in the Senate Judiciary Committee but proceeded no further.
  5. Wisconsin (2011)- angry that challenges to state laws were being heard and struck down by judges of Dane County, the Wisconsin legislature enacted SB 117. Under it, actions in which state government is the sole party may be filed in any county in the state. Appeals must be heard in a Court of Appeals district  other than the one in which the case was filed. Moreover, the appellant (the state, in cases where a law is struck down at the trial level) would be allowed to pick the Court of Appeals district they want the appeal heard in.




Oklahoma: House votes to give only trial judges raises; delinks at least for this year judicial salaries to those of other officials

I mentioned previously Oklahoma’s practice of linking judicial salaries to that of other officials, making a raise in salary for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, for example, result in a raise for the Governor. That linkage has lead in the past to legislators refusing to give salary increases to judges.

Earlier this week, however, the Oklahoma House voted to effectively sever the link between judicial and other salaries for this year only and only for local/trial judges. HJR 1096 as introduced would have simply rejected the judicial salary increases. As amended and approved on a 54-34 vote in the House trial judges and local prosecutors would get about a 6% increase:

District Court Judges $ 131,835.00
Associate District Court Judges $ 121,596.00
Special District Court Judges $ 111,356.00

Those increases would not apply to the appellate courts or the Governor, Lt. Governor, Attorney General, and other state officials whose salaries are measured as a percentage of trial judge’s salaries.

The plan now goes to the Senate for its approval.


Oklahoma: all court records presumptively public records, Supreme Court to issue uniform rules for online records and local clerks must obey them

Amid the debate over what court records information should be available online, Oklahoma’s legislature passed and its governor has now signed a law that addresses both paper documents and the future of online records.

HB 2998 of 2014 as enacted specifically provides all court records are public records

All court records, as defined by Section 32.1 of Title 12 of the Oklahoma Statutes, shall be considered public records and shall be subject to the provisions of the Oklahoma Open Records Act, unless otherwise identified by statute to be confidential. If confidentiality is not required by statute, the court may seal a record or portion of a record only if a compelling privacy interest exists which outweighs the public’s interest in the record.

The law then goes on to specify that a judge must make written findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to the compelling privacy interest and that the sealing of the records must be narrowly tailored.

The law further requires the state’s Supreme Court create rules regarding the display of court records online to ensure that all online data is displayed uniformly in all counties. “Court clerks shall obey and follow the rules.”

HB 2998 has an effective date of November 1, 2014.

House effort to reduce Oklahoma Bar’s power to name members of merit selection commission dies on 46-48 vote; effort to eliminate power rejected 31-65

The effort in Oklahoma to reduce or remove the power of the state’s attorneys to select members of their merit selection commission failed yesterday in the House floor.

Several House amendments were offered to SJR 21 that would reduce or remove the power of the state’s lawyers to name 6 members of the Oklahoma Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC). The first vote was on a plan to reduce the bar’s power by letting them elect only 2 out of  the 6 seats assigned to lawyers. That substitute amendment to Amendment 1 was rejected 46-48 (out of 101 total members).

After that amendment to the amendment failed, other amendments introduced were withdrawn or tabled. With the substitute amendment having failed, debate on the main bill started. The main proponent argued that the perception was that the bar had “drifted to the left”, had a “real” but “subtle” bias, and that the lawyers favored the plaintiff’s bar in terms of recommendations for judicial vacancies. Opponents argued that “nothing was broken”, cited to separation of powers concerns, and noted that SJR 21 would have perhaps unconstitutionally vacated the offices of the 6 currently serving attorneys in those seats.

With the loss of the amendment to reduce the role of the state’s lawyers on the JNC, the ultimate House vote on outright removing the bar’s power and letting the legislative leaders pick all 6 JNC attorney members failed on a much more lopsided vote of 31-65.