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Supreme Weekly: Tensions mounting in the states

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March 24, 2011

by Katy Farrell

In the two weeks since we last wrote a Supreme Weekly update, tension seems to be the dominant trend. Budgets in California and Minnesota, a confirmation vote with controversy in Connecticut, an increasingly bitter campaign in Wisconsin and a redistricting deadline in Louisiana left members of the state governments scurrying for answers.


WISCONSIN

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With the spring election less than two weeks away, the campaign for Wisconsin Supreme Court is becoming increasingly partisan and personal. Stepping away from the actual candidates' platforms for a moment, last week the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article exposing the divisions of the current court. The article provided a glimpse into the backroom at the court during the contentious ethics allegations surrounding Justice Michael Gableman's 2008 election campaign. In the article, the justices were quoted as sniping at one another, leading up to Justice David Prosser calling Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson a "total bitch". Justice Prosser has since acknowledged the incident, stating, "I probably overreacted, but I think it was entirely warranted. . . . They (Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley) are masters at deliberately goading people into perhaps incautious statements. This is bullying and abuse of very, very long standing."[1] Prosser's opponent in the April 5 election, JoAnne Kloppenburg, has suggested that the court needed a fresh start to bridge some of the divides that have been created.[2]

A more looming issue framing the campaign is the uncertainly of the Governor's Budget Repair Bill, which eliminates collective bargaining rights for many of the state's public union employees. It seems almost certain that the bill will eventually be decided upon by the Supreme Court, which injects a partisan tone into this non-partisan election. The press seems content to simplify the election for voters into two categories: a vote for Prosser is a vote for Walker's budget, while electing Kloppenburg is a vote for the unions.[3] Of course, the winning justice is elected to a full ten-year term and may decide on any number of issues in the time.

For opponents of judicial elections, this race highlights the increasing politicization of the bench, which they say compromises our independent judiciary.[4]

In the past, elections to the court were almost quiet affairs, with an average turnout of 22% of registered voters. A cause or effect of this is that an incumbent justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court has not been defeated since 1967. [5]

LOUISIANA

The justices of the Louisiana Supreme Court can rest easy, since it seems that the districts they represent are no longer going to be subject to redistricting. Rick Gallot, chairman of the Louisiana House Committee on House and Governmental Affairs, originally hoped to redraw the districts based on the results of the U.S. Census. However, since he and the justices are unable to agree on a plan, and the deadline of April 13 is fast approaching, it seems that the districts will remain the same.[6]

To learn more about redistricting plans in Louisiana, visit Ballotpedia's Redistricting Roundup.

CONNECTICUT

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Last week the state Senate and House of Representatives approved the nomination of Lubbie Harper to the Connecticut Supreme Court. The Connecticut Senate voted 24 to 7 in favor of the confirmation, while the Connecticut House of Representatives voted 124 to 16 in favor.[7]

The majority of the opposition to the appointment centered on Harper's vote in a case regarding the state's gay marriage law. While serving on the Appellate Court, he filled in as a temporary justice on the state Supreme Court. The vote was 4-3 in favor changing the law banning gay marriage.[7]

At the age of 68, Harper will have a relatively short tenure on the court before his mandatory retirement at 70. Still, the members of the legislature felt very strongly about his nomination, with one saying, "Lubbie Harper is the real deal. Lubbie Harper learned about law and justice - not just from books - but from his life."[7]

MINNESOTA

Chief Justice Lorie Gildea is becoming increasingly vocal about budget cuts to the judiciary. By highlighting cases in which rulings have been overturned due to a lack of speedy court hearings, Gildea demonstrates real consequences that reduced funds bring to the judicial branch. As we've explored in other budget-related articles, the judiciary of a state generally makes up between 1 to 5 percent of the annual budget. In Minnesota, members of the State Legislature have expressed their interest for a "hold harmless" approach to the judiciary in this budget cycle, meaning that they will not decrease funding. According to Senator Warren Limmer, "It’s easier to trim back court funding than other funding areas because the judiciary has no natural constituency to leap to its defense when threaten by budget cuts."[8]

CALIFORNIA

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A battle has been brewing in California for the past month over an integration project overseen by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Beginning in 2004, then-Chief Justice Ronald George advocated for a computer system linking records and courthouses in every county in the state. Now, because of a report issued by the state auditor last month, it seems that the project has been poorly implemented and is way over budget. Currently, only 7 of the 58 counties in the state have been put onto this system, while original projections of a $260 million price tag skyrocketed to as much as $1.9 billion.[9]

Members of the California State Legislature have sent a letter to the current Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, urging her to fire the head of the AOC. While she has been adamant about her support for Bill Vickrey, today it was announced that he will retire in September of this year.[9]

The poor results of this project add to the ever-present budget tension in California. However, the Alliance of California Judges is particularly dismayed at the amount of money being funneled into this project while court employees have taken mandatory furloughs and courts are closing during working hours to save money.[10]

Though Justice Cantil-Sakauye maintains her commitment to the computer system, the pressure is mounting from all sides to abandon it.[10]

SOUTH DAKOTA

Lastly, Justice Judith Meierhenry has announced her resignation from the South Dakota Supreme Court. She is the first woman to have served on the court, having joined in 2002. She will retire in June of this year.

In her announcement, Meierhenry said, "My dad always said, 'Life depends a whole lot on luck and some people are just lucky.' I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I've had the most rewarding career. More than I could have ever hoped for."[11]

See also

References