3 states consider ending partisan judicial races, but 2 other states debate bringing them back; other states want an end to partisan election of clerks of court

Years ago, I noted the North Carolina/West Virginia paradox. As West Virginia moved to expand its public financing of judicial races (court of last resort at least), North Carolina moved to end their program. West Virginia moved to end partisan judicial races at almost the same moment North Carolina moved to bring their judicial races back to partisan.

The above dynamic is playing out in the 2019 legislative sessions in a host of states: one state moving one way on judicial selection, while a nearby (and sometimes neighboring) state considers going the other way.

Partisan to Nonpartisan
New Mexico SJR 12 would end partisan races for Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, District Court, and Metropolitan Court. A similar plan was introduced as SJR 10 of 2017 (discussed here). The 2017 effort was approved in the Senate Rules Committee but proceed no further.

Mississippi HB 1490 addresses a quirk in Mississippi law. The state has previously ended partisan judicial elections for all courts except the state’s lowest (justice court). HB 1490 would switch these elections to partisan and provide that judges elected to these courts would be considered legally “part-time” judges and eligible to continue to practice law.

South Carolina HB 3034 would require nonpartisan elections in probate courts. Interesting, South Carolina’s probate court judges are the only judges in the state subject to voters. Most (Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit, and Family) are chosen by the legislature. Magistrates Court judges are appointed by the governor with legislative confirmation. Municipal Court judges are appointed by local government.

Nonpartisan to Partisan
Kentucky HB 123 would amend the state’s constitution to require partisan elections for judges in the state. The move seems, at least in part, prompted by a recent decision of the state’s supreme court striking down the governor’s and legislature’s pension reform plan as unconstitutional.

South Dakota SJR 3 would end nonpartisan elections for all judges.

Clerk Races
While a great deal of focus is on judicial races, another key judiciary-related office is that of Clerk of Court. While there have been several attempts in states to make these races nonpartisan over the years, none have succeeded. Nevertheless, the topic is up for debate this year in the following states:

Mississippi SB 2374 would convert several county offices to nonpartisan including Chancery Clerk and Circuit Clerk.

Nebraska LB 72, LB 144, and LB 211 would allow for some of all county officers, including clerks of court, to be elected on a nonpartisan basis. The bills differ in how that change would occur: LB 72 and LB 211 would simply convert these elections to nonpartisan directly. HB 144 would require voters to approve such a change on a county-by-county basis.

South Carolina HB 3032 would end the practice of electing on a partisan basis the Clerk of Common Pleas who serves ex officio as the clerk for all courts of record in a county (unless specified by another statute).

Nebraska: hearing next week on plan to eliminate office of Clerk of the District Court, make county employees state; Delaware & California made similar moves in last several decades

Nebraska, like many states, provides for the election of the clerk of their general jurisdiction court or their appointment from outside the judiciary (e.g. county boards). Other states make the Clerk of Court a court employee and/or have merged the office into the court’s trial court administrator. Next week, Nebraska’s Senate Judiciary committee will debate whether to move in this direction.

Under LB 544 the office of Clerk of the District Court would be phased out in counties where the position is appointive or where some other county official is serving ex officio as clerk and the responsibilities transferred to existing clerk magistrates.

Where the position is elected (as appears to be most if not all counties), the county board could vote to end the position, however no incumbent would be forced out of office. Serving elected clerks would remain in office and continue to be re-elected until a vacancy occurs. This exact same situation occurred in Delaware when the state’s constitution was amended in the 1980s to make prothonotaries appointed by the Superior Court rather than elected and incumbents allowed to remain and run for re-election.

As for how the office would function, LB 544 provides property remains owned by the county, but books, files and records transfer to the state court administrator. Moreover, employees become state employees, but with the assurance “No transferred county employee shall incur a loss of income or benefits as a result of becoming a state employee.” This was similar to the law passed when California merged its Municipal Courts into Superior and all court employees became state employees (Cal Gov Code § 70217).

The hearing on LB 544 has been set for February 1 in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Legislation on Veterans Courts: authorizing such courts vs. requiring their creation

Over the last several years courts and legislatures have shown an interest in creating “veterans courts”, specialized dockets or processes to handle criminal cases involving veterans and servicemembers. Last year both Tennessee (SB 711 / HB 854) and Utah (SB 214) enacted bills that authorized the creation of such courts in their respective states while Washington (SB 5107) passed a law encouraging their creation. In 2016, several bills are actively looking into this area.

Arizona: “shall establish”

In 2014 the legislature took an existing statute that authorized homeless courts and expanded it to include authorization for “veterans court and mental health court” divisions (HB 2457). This year there is a proposal to mandate the creation of such programs. HB 2554 of 2016 would provide such veterans courts must be established and that certain cases involving DUIs must be sent to such programs.

The presiding judge of the superior court in each county shall establish a veterans court to adjudicate cases filed in the superior court, and, if a veterans court is not established pursuant to section 22.601, to adjudicate cases filed in a justice court or a municipal court in the county….the presiding judge of the superior court shall establish the eligibility criteria for referral to the veterans court.  The criteria must include a mandatory referral requirement for any case that is filed against a veteran and that alleges only a violation of section 28.1383, subsection A, paragraph 1, 2 or 4.

HB 2554 is in the House Judiciary Committee

California: “shall develop”

As previously noted, three times the California legislature passed bills to require or force the state’s judiciary to create veterans courts and three times (by two different governors) the bills were vetoed, with notations that many courts already had such programs and that the decision to create new ones should be decided by the courts themselves. That hasn’t stopped a fourth round of legislation.

AB 863 would require every Superior Court individually, or together with a neighboring county, create veterans courts (“each superior court shall develop and implement a veterans court”).  The bill spells out who would be eligible and how the veterans court would operate.

AB 1672 would specifically require the creation of such courts in counties adjacent to San Luis Obispo that do not already have such programs as a regional, rather than a county, based veterans court program.

Both bills are pending in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.

Iowa: “is established”

HB 68 and the identical SSB 3085 simply declare “A veterans treatment court is established in each judicial district…” The House version was carried over from 2015. The Senate version had a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee yesterday (2/10).

Nebraska: requires pilot program

LB 915 establishes “the intent of the Legislature that the Supreme Court establish a three-year pilot project to create a veterans’ treatment court program for any county in which a city of the metropolitan class is located.” Media reports indicate Douglas County would be the pilot county. A hearing on the bill February 5 was held before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

LB 919, scheduled for that same hearing, would take the state’s existing statutes (24-1301 and 24-1302) authorizing “drug court programs and problem solving court programs” and amend the language to include “drug, veteran’s, mental health, driving under the influence, reentry, and other problem solving court programs”.

New Jersey: requires statewide or local pilot programs

AB 776 requires the creation of a pilot veterans court program in three specific counties (Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland). The bill is pending in the Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

AB 2944 and the identical SB 1189 require the creation of a pilot veterans court program in two judicial districts (called in New Jersey vicinages) one of which must be Burlington County (Vicinage 3). The Assembly version has not been assigned to a committee; the Senate version is that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

SB 307 creates a three-year statewide Veterans Treatment Court Pilot Program. The bill is in the Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

New York: required vs. authorized; transfer to other courts in judicial district

AB 2421 as amended and the identical SB 3914 as amended provide for an alternate treatment program for veterans accused of certain felonies. AB 2421 was approved by the Assembly Codes committee on June 15, 2015. It was sent back to the Codes committee at the start of the 2016 session. SB 3914 remains in the Senate Codes committee.

SB 3141 authorizes the state’s Chief Administrator of the Courts to create a veterans court in any criminal court in the state. The plan allows for criminal charges in lower courts within a county or in another county within a judicial district to be transferred to the veterans court. The plan was approved by the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security, and Military Affairs Committee on May 4, 2015. It was sent back to that committee at the start of the 2016 session.

SB 5677 authorizes the transfer of a criminal action to another criminal court in the same county or an adjoining county that has been designated a veterans treatment court by the chief administrator of the courts. The bill was passed by the full Senate on June 15, 2015 and the Assembly failed to take it up in the 2015 session. It was sent back to the Senate Codes committee at the start of the 2016 session.

SB 6595 also addresses the ability to transfer criminal cases from one court to another court that has a “problem solving court” defined as including a drug court, domestic violence court, youth court, mental health court, and veterans court. The bill is pending in the Senate Codes committee.

Pennsylvania: “shall establish…using available funds”

HB 887 provides the president judge of each common pleas court “shall establish…a veterans and service member court.” It also allows for two or more common pleas courts to operate such a court jointly. The legislation also accounts for the existence of veterans courts already created by court rule, allowing them to continue as they already are. It has been pending in the House Judiciary Committee since February 2015.

SB 517 provides the president judge of each common pleas court “shall establish…a veterans and service member court.” It does not appear to provide for joint operation of a court between two counties. The legislation also accounts for the existence of veterans courts already created by court rule, allowing them to continue as they already are. It has been pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee since February 2015.

Rhode Island: “[District Court] chief judge…shall create”; can’t be used to dismiss charges

HB 5850 and the identical SB 945 creates a 13th judge on the state’s District Court. It provides the chief judge of the District Court “shall create a veterans’ treatment calendar.” Moreover, it specifies that “Under no circumstances shall the defendant(s) be permitted to use this section  as  a  basis  for  a  dismissal  of  an  action,  as  this  section  is  enacted  for  the benefit  and  convenience of the  district court.” Both had committee hearings in 2015 and both were held over for the 2016 session.

Virginia: problem-solving courts in general vs. specific to veterans

HB 96 and the apparently identical SB 26 allow for the establishment of problem-solving courts in general, including veterans courts.

Problem-solving courts are specialized criminal court dockets within the existing structure of Virginia’s court system that enable the judiciary to manage its workload more efficiently. Under the leadership and regular interaction of presiding judges, and through voluntary offender participation, problem-solving courts shall address underlying offender needs and conditions that contribute to criminal behavior. Such needs and conditions shall include, but not be limited to, veteran’s status, mental illness, and societal reentry.

SB 317 copies much of the language from HB 976 and SB 26 but is limited to veterans courts only.

All three bills have been held over until the 2017 session by their respective committees.

West Virginia: “shall establish program” problem-solving courts in general

SB 48 provides the Supreme Court of Appeals shall establish a mental health, veterans and service members court program in the areas of the state with the highest need. Two such courts shall be established by July 1, 2016 with an additional two courts every year for a total of 10 programs by 2020.

OK: state supreme court has struck down several laws as unconstitutional 7-2, so legislator wants to force court to be 9-0 or 8-1 in the future

Recently the Oklahoma Supreme Court has struck down several laws passed by the state’s legislature on 7-2 votes. Of particular note was the July 2015 decision by the court that resulted in the removal of a Ten Commandments display from the State Capitol Grounds as well as a 2013 ruling that struck down the legislature’s tort reform package for violating the state constitution’s “single subject” rule.

The result: a 2016 proposal to require at least an 8-1 or 9-0 vote to overturn state laws.

Under HJR 1063 as prefiled for the 2016 session

in any case in which the constitutionality of legislation enacted by the Legislature is at issue, the vote of the Supreme Court must be unanimous or there must not be more than one dissenting vote for the legislation to be declared unconstitutional. If the vote of the Supreme Court is not unanimous and there is more than one dissenting vote , the legislation shall not be held to be unconstitutional.

Interestingly, the bill does not apply to the state’s other court of last resort (Court of Criminal Appeals).

Only Nebraska (5/7) and North Dakota (4/7) require specific vote totals to find a law unconstitutional by the state’s court of last resort. A few states have quorum-minimums that require a majority of all justices of the court (as opposed to just a majority of the panel of justices hearing the case) are needed to strike down a law.


The state’s constitution provides the Supreme Court may sit together (“in banc”) or in panels of 3 judges, however “the court shall not declare any law unconstitutional except when sitting in banc.” (Art. VI, Sec. 2)


The state’s constitution provides “No legislative act shall be held unconstitutional except by the concurrence of five [out of seven] judges.” (Art. V, Sec. 2)

This came up most recently in 2015 regarding a law that allowed “major oil pipeline” carriers to bypass the  regulatory procedures of the Public Service Commission.  (Thompson v. Heineman, 289 Neb. 798; 857 N.W.2d 731). Four judges ruled 1) appellees had standing and 2) the statute in question was unconstitutional. Three dissenting judges found that the five-judge requirement applied to both the questions of standing/jurisdiction and the merits and because there were not 5 votes on standing/jurisdiction the case should have been dismissed.

North Dakota

The state’s constitution provides “the supreme court shall not declare a legislative enactment unconstitutional unless at least four of the [five] members of the court so decide.” (Art. VI, Sec. 4)

This came up most recently in a 2014 case regarding a 2011 statute that addressed medication-induced abortions. (MKB Mgmt. Corp. v. Burdick, 2014 ND 197; 855 N.W.2d 31) The court fractured in a unique pattern

  • Two justices (one regular justice and a trial judge filling in due to a vacancy on the court) found the statute in question violated the ND constitution. Two justices found the statute constitutional under the ND constitution. One justice found the question did not need to be decided under the ND constitution. (2-2-1)
  • Three justices (two regular justices plus the fill-in trial judge) found the statute also violated the Federal constitution. One justice found the statute constitutional under the Federal constitution. One justice found the question was not properly before the court.  (3-1-1)

The court ultimately found “The effect of the separate opinions in this case is that [the statute] is not declared unconstitutional by a sufficient majority…”


The state’s constitution provides “The Supreme Court by rule may sit and render final judgment either en banc or in divisions. The court shall not declare any law unconstitutional under this constitution or the Constitution of the United States, except on the concurrence of a majority of all [five] justices of the Supreme Court. (Art. VIII, Sec. 2)


The state’s constitution is similar to Utah’s: “The Court may sit and render final judgment en banc or in divisions as may be prescribed by law…[N]o law shall be declared unconstitutional under either this Constitution or the Constitution of the United States except on the concurrence of at least a majority of all justices of the Supreme Court.” (Art. VI, Sec. 2)


Across country, state legislatures consider altering number of nominees judicial nominating commissions must release

One particular aspect of judicial selection legislatures have had a keen interest has been the number of names that advance through judicial nominating commissions (JNCs). 2016 looks to be no exception; in Missouri SJR 30 prefiled for the new year would eliminate the restriction that the state’s JNCs send only three names to the governor. Moreover, an examination of legislation over the last two decades shows a marked uptick in interest outside of Missouri over the last several years.


The state’s constitution provides the state’s JNC send “two or more persons” to the governor when a vacancy occurs in either the Supreme or Superior Court; statutes require “two or more persons” for Court of Appeals (Alaska Stat. § 22.07.070) and District Court (§ 22.15.170) vacancies. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.


The state’s constitution provides that if the vacancy is on the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, or Superior Court (in counties that use a commission system) the governor is to receive the names of “not less than three persons.” Several efforts have been made to amend this provision. SCR 1038 of 2005 would have increased this to 6 names for appellate vacancies and 7 for Superior Courts. In 2011 proposals were submitted (SCR 1040, SCR 1046, and SCR 1049) that would have increased the list to 6 names for appellate vacancies and 7 for Superior Courts.

The proposal that eventually made it on the ballot was SCR 1001 of 2011: 8 names for both trial and appellate vacancies. SCR 1001 also included several other changes to give governors more power over the JNCs. When it appeared on the 2012 ballot as Proposition 115 it received only a 27% yes vote. Undaunted by the loss, the legislature in 2013 passed HB 2600. Rather than amend the constitution, the legislature tried to force by statute the JNCs to provide governors “the names of at least five persons” for trial and appellate vacancies. In September 2013 the state’s supreme court held that law unconstitutional.


The state’s constitution provides the JNCs in the state are to provide “a list of three nominees for the supreme court and any intermediate appellate court, and… a list of two or three nominees for all other courts of record…” No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.


Connecticut adopted a commission based system in 1986: governors nominate from a list provided by the state’s judicial selection commission but the constitution is silent as to the number. State law (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 51-44a) provides that the commission is to provide the governor a list of all “qualified candidates”. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.


The state adopted a merit/commission system in 1972 for the state’s trial and appellate courts. The original provision required the JNCs to submit a list of “not fewer than three persons”. For the appellate courts, this was amended in 1976 to precisely 3 (“one of three persons nominated”). For trial courts, commission appointment was eliminated, but was made optional under a 1998 amendment that allowed voters to opt in for each county in the 2000 election. Under the 1998 trial court opt-in provision “not fewer than three” names were to go to the governor. No county opted into this system for its trial courts.

For the appellate courts, several efforts were made in the 1990s to change the “not fewer than three persons” language. The first was to change it to precisely “three persons” (SJR 18 of 1992). Eventually the legislature settled on “Not fewer than three persons nor more than six persons” (HJR 1415 and SJR 978 of 1996). The expansion to 3-6 names was approved by voters as Amendment 3 in November 1996.

By 2000 another round of efforts were made to expand the list, this time by dropping any numerical requirements and providing the JNCs were to send a list of all applicants (HB 923 of 2000) or a list of all persons eligible to fill the vacancy (HB 627, HB 827, SB 1794, and SB 1860 of 2001). None of the proposals advanced and the issue has appeared to have remained dormant since.


The state adopted a commission based appointment system in the 1978. Originally the commission was required to submit a “list of not less than six nominees” for each vacancy in the state’s appellate and trial courts. A 1994 amendment (SB 2294) modified this to “a list of not less than four, and not more than six” for the Supreme, Intermediate Appellate, and Circuit Courts; District Courts remained at “not less than six nominees”.

There the matter lay for over a decade until a 2005 effort (SB 1166) would have provided the lists for all courts were to be made up of “not less than three.” In 2007 a measure to change the threshold down to 3-5 names for all courts was introduced. SB 948 was approved by the full Senate and advanced through the House Judiciary Committee before ultimately dying when the legislature adjourned.


The state’s constitution provides the judicial nominating commission must submit “a list of three nominees” to the governor for vacancies on the Supreme Court or Court of Appeals. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.


The state’s constitution provides that the judicial nominating commission is to provide “three nominees” for Supreme Court vacancies and “two nominees” for District Courts; a statute (Iowa Code § 46.14A) with respect to the Court of Appeals repeats the “three nominees” language.

With respect to the constitutional provision, there were several efforts (SJR 2006 of 2010; SJR 6 and SJR 7 of 2011) to allow the governor to reject the list of three names provided for Supreme Court vacancies and requiring the commission submit a list of three new names. None advanced.

With respect to the Court of Appeals, the statute creating the court in 1976 required the nominating commission provide the governor a list of 3 names for vacancies on that court (former § 46.15). That number was expanded to five when the state’s judiciary was reorganized in 1983. The number was reverted back to 3 when portions of section Iowa Code § 46.15 were recodified as § 46.14A (SF 381 of 2007).


The state’s constitution specifies that with respect to the Supreme Court the Supreme Court Nominating Commission is to provide the governor a list of “three persons.” The state’s Court of Appeals had until 2013 also be selected in like fashion via a statutory system (Kan. Stat. Ann. § 20-3005) that required a list of “three nominees”. In addition District Courts in those judicial districts that have opted into the commission-select system have their vacancies filled from a list of “not less than two nor more than three persons for each office which is vacant” (§ 20-2909).

With respect to the Supreme Court, there was an effort to allow governors to reject the list of 3 names and be provided a second list of 3 new names for a total of 6 (HCR 5005 of 2009) or to simply have the commission submit 6 names on the first list (SCR 1619 of 2007 & SCR 1612 of 2009). Another (HCR 5027 of 2013) would have provided the commission submit all qualified persons to the governor.

With respect to the Court of Appeals no effort was made to expand the list the commission was required to provide, the commission system was simply eliminated in 2013 and the governor permitted to appoint any qualified person subject to senate confirmation.

With respect to the District Courts, no recent effort appears to have been made to modify the current practice of 2-3 names.


Since adoption of its commission-based plan the Missouri constitution has specified that commissions are to submit “three persons” to fill vacancies in the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and specified Circuit Courts. Although a 1976 constitutional revision moved the location of the language (from Art. V, Sec. 29(a) to the new Art. V, Sec 25(a)) the 3-persons provision was unchanged.

Much of the focus in this area has been for a 4/8 or 5/10 plan. Under the proposals the initial list submitted to the governor would be made up of 4 or 5 names (vs. the current 3). The governor would be allowed to reject the list and ask for a new one, for a total of 8 or 10 nominees.

The 4/8 plan appeared in HJR 19 of 2009 (as introduced) and SJR 17 of 2011.

The 5/10 provision appeared in HJR 49 of 2008, HJR 10 of 2009 (as amended), SJR 9 of 2009, HJR 58 of 2010, HJR 18 of 2011, and HJR 44 of 2012. A plan that would allow for only a single list of 5 names was considered as HJR 52 of 2008.

The latest iteration prefiled for the 2016 session (SJR 30) would simply eliminate the 3-name provision.


The state’s constitution provides vacancies in the state’s Supreme and District Courts must be filed from a list of “of at least two nominees” presented to the governor. Various statutes extend this practice to the Court of Appeals (Neb. Rev. Stat. § 24-1101), County Courts (§ 24-820) and Juvenile Courts (§ 43-2,114) and incorporate the constitutional provision by reference. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

New Mexico

New Mexico uses a unique two-step process for judicial selection. When a vacancy occurs one of three JNCs (appellate judges, district court judges, or metropolitan court judges commissions) meets and submits to the governor a list of all “persons qualified for judicial office and recommended for appointment”. The governor can then ask for a second list of names. Whoever is picked, however, must then face off in partisan elections at the next general election.

While the constitution does not provide for a minimum or maximum number of names, one bill did seek to put such a provision in place after a single name was submitted in 2006 to the state’s governor to fill a District Court vacancy and no additional names sent when he asked for a second list. SB 1075 of 2007 would have required JNCs provide at least two names per vacancy. The bill never proceeded out of committee.

New York

New York’s constitution since 1977 requires vacancies for the state’s top court (called the Court of Appeals) be filled via a commission on judicial nomination, but gives the legislature power to set the organization and procedure of the commission. State law on this subject (Judiciary Law § 63) specifies the list to fill associate judgeship must contain “at least three persons and not more than seven persons.” Interestingly, the chief judgeship must be made up of at least 7 persons (“In recognition of the unique responsibilities of the chief judge of the court of appeals for policies of judicial administration, for a vacancy in the office of chief judge the commission shall recommend to the governor seven persons.”)

In 1993 an effort (AB 916) was made to raise the 7-name limit for chief judge to 11 names and automatically put all serving associate judges on that list. The bill was reintroduced for several sessions thereafter (AB 3699 of 1995 & AB 2148 of 1997).

In 2009 an attempt was made to eliminate the numerical restrictions and require the commission send all qualified names to the governor. AB 3866 of that year failed to advance but was reintroduced in the 2011 session as AB 309.

Also in 2009 an attempt was made to increase the limits from 3-7 to 5-9 (associate judge) and from 7 to 9 (chief judge). It too failed to advance.


The state’s constitution provides that vacancies in the state’s two top courts (Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals) are to be filled from a list of “three (3) nominees” submitted to the governor. A statute (Okla. Stat. tit. 20, § 30.17) extends this practice to the state’s intermediate appellate court (Court of Civil Appeals). No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Rhode Island

In 1994 the state’s constitution was amended to provide vacancies in the Supreme Court were to be filled from a list provided by a judicial nominating commission to be established by the legislature and confirmed by the House and Senate. Lower court vacancies (Superior, Family, and District) were also to be filled by commission-based appointment but required only Senate confirmation. A statute (R.I. Gen. Laws 8-16.1-6) provides that the list provided by the commission is to be made up of between 3-5 names.

From 2008 to 2015 governors were not limited to just those 3-5 names. Under laws enacted annually from 2008 to 2014 (HB 7829 of 2008, HB 5567 of 2009, SB 2645 of 2010, SB 686 of 2011, HB 8043 of 2012, SB 471 of 2013, and HB 8006 of 2014) anyone vetted and approved by the JNC for a judgeship would be eligible for any other judgeship of the same court for 5 years. The program lapsed on July 1, 2015 when HB 6307 failed to be enacted to give the program yet another 1-year extension.

South Carolina

South Carolina is one of only two states (Virginia is the other) in which the legislature elects judges with no involvement by the governor. In 1997 the state’s constitution was amended to require the creation of a “Judicial Merit Selection Commission” to recommend nominees to the legislature for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Court, and Family Court. The commission’s membership and processes were left up to the legislature to set. The law enacted to implement the constitutional provision (S.C. Code Ann. § 2-19-80) requires the release by the commission of “the three candidates whom it considers best qualified.”

There have been over two dozen pieces of legislation to alter the number of names released by the commission. Almost all focused on the release of all qualified names, with “qualified” meaning either a) that the individual meets the minimum requirements for the position (age, attorney, etc.) or b) the person was “qualified” to serve in the opinion of the commission.

The practice for the better part of a decade was for the House to pass the “all qualified names” provision and for the Senate to either reject it or amend it to “no more than 3 qualified names” but with a provision that more than 3 names could be sent if two-thirds of the commission approved. This House/Senate split occurred in the 2003/2004 (HB 4734), 2005/2006 (HB 2079), and 2007/2008 (HB 3463 & SB 40) sessions. The Senate passed its own standalone version (3 names, more if two-thirds of commission approved) in 2007 (SB 40) that the House failed to act on.

The matter lay dormant until the 2015/2016 session when again the House passed an “all qualified” names bill (HB 3979); the Senate has yet to act on the legislation.

South Dakota

The state’s constitution was amended in 1980 to provide that vacancies in the Supreme Court are to be filled from a list of “two or more persons” nominated by the judicial qualifications commission. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.


The state’s constitution was amended in 1985 to provide for a commission-system with senate confirmation for all courts of record (Supreme, Court of Appeals, District and Juvenile). The list given to the governor for these courts must consist “of at least three nominees.” A statutory change in 2008 (SB 72) brought the state’s other courts (Justice) into a commission system. The Justice Court Commission was required to submit “at least two names to the appointing authority.”

For the courts of record, a 1995 statute (former Utah Code § 20A-12-105, recodified in 2008 as § 78A-10-104) provided the appellate commission was to provide the governor at least 5 names for each vacancy while trial court commissions were to provide at least 3 names. In 2010 this was further amended (SB 289) to provide that the appellate court commission is to submit 7 names to the governor, while the trial court commissions are to send 5. SB 108 of the same year had similar provisions. A 1998 effort (SJR 3) would have allowed the governor to reject a list of names from the commission and request a new list. There was no limit to the number of rejections.

For the Justice Courts, a 2015 proposal (SB 141) increased the number of names from “at least two” to “at least three” for the local appointing authority to choose from. The bill was signed into law in March of this year.


The state’s constitution provides the governor is to nominate Supreme Court and other judges (other than Probate judges) from a list provided by a judicial nominating body to be created by the legislature. A state statute (4 VSA 602) provided that the Judicial Nominating Board is to submit all “candidates” to the governor for consideration; this was amended in 2009 (HB 470) to “qualified candidates”. Other than the 2009 amendment, no recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.


The state’s constitution as amended in 1972 provides for a judicial nominating commission for the supreme court, district courts and any other courts the legislature decides. The commission is to give the governor “a list of three nominees” for vacancies. No recent attempt has been made to alter these provisions.

Nebraska Legislative Year in Review: changes to judicial salaries & retirement benefits


LB 15 Requires the Supreme Court to provide standards and provide and change duties for and compensation of guardians ad litem.

LB 194 Creates Supreme Court Attorney Services Cash Fund for regulation of practice of law in state.

LB 301 Allows for court opinions and the Nebraska Reports to be released and published electronically.

LB 468 Changes benefit and contribution provisions relating to judges retirement system.

LB 663 Increases judicial salaries.

Review of 2015 efforts to change, alter, or end merit selection/commission based judicial appointment systems

The last several years have seen numerous efforts to modify or simply abolish merit selection/commission-based judicial appointive systems and 2015 was no exception. In these systems , a commission provides a list of names to an executive, or in the case of South Carolina the legislature, from which the appointing authority must select (as opposed to some states where the commission’s list is a recommendation only).

Much of the effort in 2015 focused on either a) reducing the percentage of lawyer-appointed members of the nomination commissions and/or b) requiring judges appointed under such systems receive super-majority support in subsequent yes/no retention elections. While major changes failed to pass in 2015, they do indicate where legislative activity will likely be focused in this area in 2016.


In a repeat of efforts first started in 2014, legislators pressed to give more control to the governor and legislature over the state’s Judicial Council which serves as the judicial nominating commission for the state. Under SJR 3 the Council would have been expanded from 7 members to 10 by the addition of 3 new non-attorney members appointed by the governor. Moreover, all Council members would have been required to be confirmed by the legislature (currently the attorney-elected councilmembers and chief justice are not required to be confirmed into their council positions). Facing heavy opposition SJR 3 was approved by the Senate State Affairs Committee on March 25 but proceeded no further.


Two constitutional amendments to modify the commission system (which applies to appellate judges and general jurisdiction judges in the state’s largest counties) were filed this year. HCR 2002 would have required judges facing retention elections receive at least a 60% “yes” vote. HCR 2006 would have allowed the state’s legislature to remove from office on a 2/3rds vote judges appointed under such a system without the need to prove an impeachable offense. Both bills died in committee.


No changes offered.


No changes offered.


For the first session in nearly a decade there were no bills introduced to change the state’s judicial selection system, this after a loss in 2014 of a plan to allow governors to “prospectively appoint” to fill judicial vacancies that had not occurred yet.


SB 615 would have modified the Senate-confirmation portion of the state’s commission-based judicial selection system. Under the state’s constitution the governor (or chief justice for some lower courts) has 30 days to select from the list of names provided by the judicial selection commission. The Senate then has 30 days to confirm the appointee otherwise the person is confirmed by default. In 2012 several judicial appointments were made at or near the deadline and in one case without giving written notification to the Senate until a week later.

SB 615 would have specified that the Senate was to receive written notice concurrently with the appointment and that the 30 day clock for the Senate to confirm started only “on the senate’s receipt of the written notice”.

SB 615 was approved by the full Senate on March 10 but the House Judiciary Committee made several amendments to clarify some of the technical language regarding notification. The House amended version ultimately died in the House Finance Committee at session’s end.


Indiana saw three separate efforts to change judicial selection in 2013. SJR 8 and SJR 9 sought to end commission-based selection for judges, allowing the governor to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals subject to Senate confirmation. Both constitutional amendments would have also repealed any judicial canons that prohibited a judge from speaking in their campaigns or making a donation of money, services, or property to a political party or a candidate for office, including a candidate for a judicial office. Finally, judges appointed under this system would have been required to receive a supermajority of “yes” votes to be retained in office: 67% under SJR 8 and 60% under SJR 9.

SJR 15 took a different tack on the issue of judicial selection. The constitutional amendment would have reduced the number of attorney-designated seats on the state’s merit selection commission and required Senate confirmation. In a unique proposal not found in any other state, the bill would have ended elections for subsequent terms, instead requiring a judge receive a 60% yes vote not of the general public but of the House of Representatives.

Neither SJR 8, SJR 9, nor SJR 15 proceeded out of committee.


No changes offered.


Having abolished the merit selection/commission-based judicial appointive system for the Court of Appeals in 2013 by statute, the state’s legislature urged on by the state’s governor debated numerous statutory and constitutional changes to the way the state’s Supreme Court is chosen, most focused on ending the state’s merit selection/commission based system.

  • HCR 5004: Direct partisan election of all appellate judges. Approved by House Judiciary Committee 2/17/2015.
  • HCR 5005: Allow Governor to appoint to Supreme Court or Court of Appeals subject to Senate confirmation. As is currently the case for the Court of Appeals by statute there would be a default-confirmation provision; if the Senate fails to vote on a candidate within a certain number of days (depending on if in session or out of session) the candidate is automatically confirmed. Judges would remain subject to yes/no retention elections. Approved by House Judiciary Committee 2/17/2015.
  • HCR 5006: Same as 5005, but judges would serve for life and not be subject to retention or other election.
  • HCR 5009: Require judges receive 67% “yes” vote in retention elections.
  • HCR 5012: Allow Governor to appoint to Supreme Court or Court of Appeals, but only from a list provided by the House of Representatives. The person appointed would be subject to Senate confirmation.
  • HCR 5013: Changes membership of Supreme Court nominating commission: 4 chosen by bar members, 5 chosen by governor, 6 chosen by legislative leaders.
  • HCR 5015: Keeps nominating commission, but gives governor power to name 5 out 9 members. Requires any name submitted to governor be approved by 2/3rds of commission.

In addition to the above SB 197 would have made statutory changes with respect to these commissions, placing them under the state’s Open Meetings Act. The records of attorneys who voted in elections to place attorney-members on the commissions would be subject to the state’s Open Records Act as well.


No changes offered.


No changes offered.


Angry at several recent decisions of the state’s Supreme Court which had resulted an impeachment effort in 2014, both the House and Senate debated either changing or ending the commission-system currently in place.

Two constitutional amendments were offered: HJR 1006 would have targeted just the Supreme Court (and not the other appellate courts), effectively replicating the system in place in Michigan and Ohio. There political parties nominate or hold primaries for judicial candidates who then appear without party labels on the November ballot. HJR 1006 would also have provided that the Governor was to name the Chief Justice from among the justices of the Supreme Court and remove the Chief Justice from that office at will. SJR 32 would have allowed the governor to appoint anyone to the appellate courts subject to Senate confirmation. The existing judicial nominating commission would remain, but as an advisory body to review the appointee prior to Senate confirmation as either “qualified” or “not qualified”. Retention elections would have remained in place for subsequent terms. Neither HJR 1006 nor SJR 32 proceeded out of committee.

Several statutory efforts were undertaken to change the composition of the judicial nominating commission. HB 2214 and SB 795 would have vacated all 6 currently serving attorney-selected members of the commission. The House bill would have refilled the positions with 6 attorneys, 2 each for the Lt. Governor, the Attorney General, and the state bar. The Senate version provided 3 selections each for the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Neither proceeded out of committee.

Rhode Island

In a repeat of a practice that has been renewed annually for almost a decade, HB 6307 would have allowed governors to fill vacancies in judicial office not only based on the contemporary list provided by the judicial nominating commission but from any list submitted by the commission in the previous 5 years. The existing statutory authorization for the 5-year look back provision lapsed as of July 31, 2015. While the House passed HB 6307 prior to the deadline (June 18), the bill remains locked in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

South Carolina

South Carolina’s legislature electes the judges of the state’s higher courts and has for the last several years used a merit selection commission to obtain a list of names for consideration. Presently the commission submit a list of the three best qualified candidates, however HB 3979 and SB 247 would have required the commission release the names of all qualified candidates. That plan was approved by the House on April 29 and remains pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee into the 2016 session. Other bills focused on giving the governor a role in the selection process.

  • HB 3123: Ends legislative selection and use of nominating commission. Provides for governor to appoint subject to Senate confirmation.
  • SB 111: Ends legislative selection and use of nominating commission. Provides for governor to appoint subject to Senate confirmation.
  • SB 180: Commission sends governor list of names, governor picks 3 names, commission reviews 3 names, legislature then picks from 3.
  • SB 242: Commission members to be selected by governor, not legislature.

South Dakota

No changes offered.


In 2008 Utah’s Justice Courts were brought into the state commission-based judicial selection system. At that time the statute required the nominating commission submit at least two names to the local appointing authority to fill a judicial vacancy. SB 141 included among its various amendments to a variety of statutes a provision that the commission must now submit at least three names. It was signed into law March 23.


No changes offered.


Nebraska: Should the Clerk of the Court be elected on a partisan ballot? Bill would replace with nonpartisan elections

Roughly half of the clerks of court for the general jurisdiction trial courts are elected either in partisan or nonpartisan races. In recent years, most notably in Maryland in 2011, efforts were made to change the method of selection to a nonpartisan one. This year two bills are being debated in Nebraska to that end.

First, some background.

Clerks of the Nebraska District Courts are elected on partisan ballots. Since at least the 1970s county residents have been able to gather signatures and put the question of election/appointment by District Judges on the ballot but it doesn’t appear that has occurred, or successfully adopted, in any of Nebraska’s 93 counties.

Since a 1996 law recodified several existing selection laws into the modern statute, there have been several efforts to end the practice of electing clerks on a partisan basis.

  • The first track has been focused on ending election for Clerks altogether and providing they be appointed by the District Judges (LB 994 of 1996; LB 507 & LB 817 of 1997; LB 414 of 1999; LB 348 of 2001; LB 751 of 2003; LB 529 & LB 1096 of 2005).
  • The second track focused instead on moving the positions to a nonpartisan footing, possibly along with other county officials, after a county referendum. (LB 96 of 1999; LB 186 and LB 214 of 2011; LB 241 of 2013)  would have moved the elections to nonpartisan ones, but only smaller counties (i.e. fewer that 10,000-50,000 people).

This year there are two efforts

  • LB 140 provides that for primary elections in counties below 10,000 only candidates for the Clerk of the District Court and other specified county offices would be without party affiliation
  • LB 273 more closely mirrors the prior second-track bills allowing for county voters or the county government in counties with a population below 10,000 (amended to 20,000) to put a referendum on the ballot to make races for the Clerk of the District Court and other specified county offices to nonpartisan ones.