For more than a decade, nearly every effort to protect courts from the influence of money and partisan politics has faced a vigorous litigation assault. Opponents of court reform have targeted ethical rules aimed at promoting the integrity and independence of the judiciary; public financing for judicial elections; and the use of nonpartisan merit commissions to screen judicial nominees.
The Fair Courts Litigation Task Force comprises a number of groups working to ensure a fair and impartial judiciary. This site tracks current litigation impacting fair courts, and collects resources regarding previous litigation relevant to fair courts.
Current Cases of Interest
Sanders County Republican Central Committee v. Bullock - This case involves a challenge to a Montana statute prohibiting political parties from endorsing, contributing to, and spending money in support of candidates in the state's nonpartisan judicial elections. The case was heard by a Ninth Circuit panel, which struck down the endorsement and expenditure bans. On July 5, 2013, Montana petitioned the Ninth Circuit to re-hear arguments en banc. On August 16, 2013, the Ninth Circuit declined to hear the case en banc, allowing the panel’s decision to stand. In Montana, political parties will now be permitted to endorse candidates and make expenditures in the state’s nonpartisan judicial elections.
McCutcheon v. F.E.C. - The Supreme Court will hear this case challenging the federal aggregation contribution limit - the total any one donor can contribute to all candidates, party committees, and PACs. While this case does not directly involve judicial elections, if the Supreme Court strikes down aggregate contribution limits as unconstitutional infringements of First Amendment rights, the case could threaten the ability of states to limit the corrosive influence of large campaign contributions in judicial elections. Oral arguments are scheduled for October 8, 2013.
Dobson v. Arizona - Article VI of the Arizona Constitution created the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments and requires the Commission to nominate “not less than three” candidates to the governor in order to fill judicial vacancies. In 2012, the legislature placed a referendum measure on the ballot to amend this article with Proposition 115, which would have increased the minimum number of candidates the Commission was required to nominate. Over 70 percent of Arizona voters rejected this measure.
In its recently completed session, the legislature passed House Bill 2600, “requiring the Commission to submit at least five candidates to the Governor, but provides that on a two-thirds vote, the Commission may reject a candidate and ‘submit fewer than five names.’” This measure was signed into law by Governor Brewer, and the members of the Commission are challenging the statute in this action, arguing that the law is an end run around the requirement that voters approve constitutional changes, and that the law alters the separation of powers in granting the governor more power of selecting judges. The Brennan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake submitted an amicus curiae brief in this action.
On September 13, 2013, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed with petitioners' claims and struck down the law in its entirety. In doing so, the court adopted in its entirety an argument the Fair Courts Litigation Task Force made in our brief. In particular, the court agreed with our position that the legislative changes (in the court’s words) worked “a fundamental change in the constitutionally prescribed balance of power between the Commission and the governor.” They also adopted our argument that the statute unconstitutionally infringed on the Supreme Court’s authority to adopt the rules of procedure for the commission.