Colin Powell, former Secretary of State
U.S. Supreme Court & Other Litigation
Williams v. Pennsylvania, cert. granted, No. 15-5040 (Oct. 1, 2015).
On December 7th, Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice submitted an amicus brief in Williams v. Pennsylvania, a case concerning the death penalty appeal of Terrance Williams. Williams’ lawyers argue that he was denied due process in his death penalty appeal, in that then-Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ronald Castille did not recuse himself from the case. They maintain that Castille should have recused himself, citing among other things Castille’s personal approval to seek the death penalty against Williams when Castille served as elected District Attorney of Philadelphia, and the fact that in his state Supreme Court campaign, Castille “expressed strong support for capital punishment, with reference to the number of defendants he had ‘sent’ to death row.”
Wolfson v. Concannon, 750 F.3d 1145 (9th Cir. 2014).
In Wolfson v. Concannon, an unsuccessful candidate for judicial office in Arizona has challenged provisions of the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct, alleging they restrict his speech and thus violate his First Amendment rights. The judicial canons in question include those that prohibit judicial candidates from: (1) making speeches on behalf of political organizations or candidates for public office; (2) publicly endorsing or opposing political candidates publically; (3) soliciting funds on behalf of, or contributing funds to any candidate or political organization in excess of the amounts permitted by law, or making total contributions in excess of fifty percent of the cumulative total permitted by law; (4) actively taking part in any political campaign other than his or her own campaign for election, reelection, or retention in office; and (5) personally soliciting campaign contributions other than through a campaign committee.
On June 12th, Justice at Stake and its allies submitted an amicus brief arguing that Arizona has a compelling interest in judicial integrity, and that the partisan activities canons at issue are an important part of a larger system designed to protect judicial integrity regardless of the method of judicial selection. While they apply in some situations to judicial elections, the partisan activities canons at issue are binding on judges at all times. Indeed, the federal code of judicial conduct provides rules for Article III judges that are nearly identical to the partisan activities canons in Wolfson. These canons should not be considered in isolation, but in the context of a larger set of policies designed to ensure that the judiciary is fair and impartial, independent, and respected.
Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, 575 U.S. __ (2015).
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in January 2015 in a First Amendment challenge to a Florida rule that prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions, instead permitting candidates to create a committee to solicit contributions on their behalf. Justice at Stake and others argue in an amicus brief that states have a duty to protect the integrity of their courts and that when judges personally solicit campaign funds, it creates the perception that they may favor a particular contributor in a future case or disfavor lawyers and litigants who choose not to contribute or are not solicited. Florida’s rule, the brief argues, is a reasonable and targeted response to the threat of judicial impartiality, and the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold it.
To learn more about Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, read a Justice at Stake statement about the case; the transcript of oral argument before the Supreme Court; briefs filed in the case and news articles and commentary about the case and about the larger issues raised concerning judicial elections.
Dobson v. State of Arizona, 233 Ariz. 119 (2013).
In September of 2013, the Arizona Supreme Court found unconstitutional a law giving the governor more sway over selecting judges and taking power away from a nonpartisan, 15-member vetting commission. Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice filed an amicus brief urging the court to strike down the law, maintaining that it would politicize the selection of top state judges.
Lair v. Bullock, 697 F.3d 1200 (9th Cir. 2012).
In May of 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the case of Lair v. Bullock, finding that the court below had not used the correct standard of review in its ruling. The decision kept in place campaign contribution limits set by the state of Montana, which apply to elections including state judicial elections. Justice at Stake and its allies filed an amicus brief in the case in 2014, urging the Ninth Circuit Court to reverse the lower court and uphold the limits.
The Ninth Circuit articulated that the proper standard to be applied in reviewing campaign contribution limits comes from its prior ruling in Montana Right to Life Association v. Eddleman. However, it also finds that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC limits the state’s interest in capping those contributions. So while the Ninth Circuit ruling keeps the limits in place, the reality of Citizens United, which is binding on both courts, opens the door to the possible overturning of the limits.
American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, 132 S.Ct. 2490 (2012).
In June, 2012, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down a Montana law that banned indirect corporate expenditures on all state elections, summarily reversing a Montana Supreme Court ruling. Justice at Stake had taken a stand in support of the Montana statute in an amicus brief filed with the Court, which warned that if the century-old law is overturned, the state “may find its courts once again bought by corporate special interests.” JAS joined eight retired Montana Supreme Court justices in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the law.
Wisconsin Right to Life PAC v. Brennan, 09-cv-764-wmc (W.D. Wis. Mar. 31, 2011).
In a case concerning the Impartial Justice Act – a state law that established a public financing system for state judicial elections – Justice at Stake and its allies filed an amicus brief urging that the federal district court uphold the law in order to protect judicial candidates from having to seek campaign contributions from major donors who might appear before them in court.
Wisconsin Right to Life, a group opposed to legal abortion, challenged provisions of Wisconsin’s Impartial Justice Act, which was passed in 2009 after spending exploded in Wisconsin high-court races. Ultimately, Wisconsin budget cuts ended funding for public financing of Supreme Court elections in Wisconsin. Both sides asked for dismissal of the case immediately following the passage of the budget, citing the fact that there was no longer an active law to evaluate.
McComish v. Bennett, 611 F.3d 510 (9th Cir. 2010).
In McComish v. Bennett, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a key provision of Arizona's law for the public financing of campaigns. Under the provision, publicly funded candidates were permitted to get additional dollars, called matching or "trigger" funds, when privately financed candidates or independent groups exceeded specified spending totals. Justice at Stake called the ruling “disappointing, but not fatal, for America's courts.” The case was widely known as McComish v. Bennett until it was consolidated with another case.
To learn more about Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, read the JAS amicus brief, which was signed by 13 former state supreme court justices; or read a same-day news release about the ruling. To read the opinion, click here.
Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
In perhaps the most consequential decision of the Roberts Court to date, the Court overturned Court precedent and invalidated dozens of state campaign finance laws in declaring that corporations could not be barred from spending treasury money on election campaigns. Justice at Stake warned that the ruling “pours gasoline on the fire of special-interest money that has been overtaking judicial elections. Interest group spending imperils our right to impartial justice by pressuring judges to rule with one eye on big-money contributors.”
To learn more about Citizens United, see the same-day news release and a later, more comprehensive news release; or read the JAS amicus brief, which was signed by 20 civic and legal reform groups. Or read this Justice at Stake fact sheet, or this commentary by JAS leadership. To read the Supreme Court's opinion, click here.
Caperton v. Massey, 556 U.S. 868 (2009).
In this landmark recusal case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a West Virginia Supreme Court justice could not participate in a case involving a coal company whose CEO had spent $3 million to help elect him. The high court said the “probability of bias” created by such campaign spending violated an opposing litigant’s right to a fair, impartial hearing.
To learn more about Caperton, see Justice at Stake’s Caperton resource page, or read our amicus brief, which was signed by 27 legal and civic reform groups.