New Alabama State Bar award honors Judge W. Harold Albritton
By Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
September 25, 2011
A new award created by the Alabama State Bar honoring leadership in providing free legal services will be presented next month to the man for whom the award is named: U.S. District Judge W. Harold Albritton III.
While state bar president 1990-91, Albritton helped create the organization's Volunteer Lawyers Program to provide free legal service to the poor and disadvantaged. Some 25 percent of the state's lawyers participate in the program. "Judge Harold Albritton has demonstrated a selfless commitment to increasing access to justice for Alabamians," Jim Pratt III, the state bar president, said in a news release. "His extraordinary work provides us with inspiring examples of what is possible and helps raise public awareness of the importance of access to justice for all, not just for those who can afford it."
The award will be presented to the Montgomery- based senior judge during the state bar's celebration of national Pro Bono Week, Oct. 23-29. Nominations for future awards will be accepted annually, it may not be awarded every year, the state bar release said.
Albritton, a graduate of the University of Alabama and its law school, was in private practice in Andalusia in a firm founded by his great grandfather before he was appointed U.S. District Judge in 1991.
He became chief judge on the court in 1998, and took senior status as a federal judge in 2005.
Asked during his 1991 confirmation hearing before a U.S. Senate committee about the need for lawyers to provide free legal service, Albritton described it as the profession's "highest calling," the state bar release said.
"It is something that should not be done grudgingly, but should be embraced willingly," he told the Senate.
"They will never receive a fee during their entire career that will make them feel more pride in being a lawyer," he said, "than they will by the grateful tears on the cheek of someone who cannot afford legal services benefitting from their help."
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States debate judicial elections versus appointed bench
By Carlyn Kolker, Reuters News
September 26, 2011
NEW YORK, Sept 26 (Reuters) - Several states that appoint judges are considering a switch to an elected bench, despite growing criticism from judges about the influence of money in judicial elections. One of the most active is Tennessee, where conservative legislators believe that appointed judges are out of touch with the electorate and unaccountable to voters.
Tennessee's current judicial system has been in place since the 1970s, when it adopted the "Tennessee plan," a mixed approach to judicial selection that was modeled after Missouri's: trial court judges are chosen by direct election, and appellate and Supreme Court judges are selected by the governor, who chooses candidates recommended by a nominating commission. Those judges stand in retention elections -- a simple up or down vote -- every eight years.
Now a significant faction in Tennessee's legislature, with support from far-right corners, claims that that system violates the state constitution. The constitution simply says that judges "shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state." With an eye on the new legislative session in January, supporters are marshalling their forces to argue their case.
IT'S ALL ABOUT TRUST
"If we can trust the people to vote for president, for Senators and Congresspeople, I don't see why we can't trust the people to elect the judges," state Senator Stacey Campfield, one of the leaders of the movement in Tennessee, told Reuters in a phone interview.
Tennessee is not alone in considering elected benches. Legislatures in seven of the 22 states with merit selections have investigated laws to alter or dismantle their systems this year, according to Justice at Stake, a Washington-based organization that tries to keep money out of judicial selection. While some of these efforts stalled, legislatures in Arizona and Florida approved a constitutional amendment that would require the Senate to confirm a governor's judicial nominees, essentially giving more legislative control to the process.
In Tennessee, concern has focused on the political orientation of its judges. The current members of the state's higher courts are vestiges of the days of Democratic control, when a Democratic governor, working with the liberal bar association, picked judges, said Brian Fitzpatrick, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, who studies the judiciary.
The state, once solidly Democratic, now is dominated by the Republican party, which controls both houses of the legislature and the governor's mansion. The swing in party power at least partially explains the move to elected judges.
OUT OF STEP WITH THE STATE?
"The state's Supreme Court and appellate courts are chock-full of liberal Democrats, and there is no way to get rid of them," said Fitzpatrick. "There is a perception, and I think it is accurate, that the Supreme Court is out of step with the state."
Some decisions have particularly stoked the public's ire, he said. The Tennessee Supreme Court has overturned legislative efforts to rein in access to abortions, and in 2008, penned a decision that made it harder for a defendant (typically a business) to get a case knocked out on summary judgment, angering the business community. The legislature re-wrote the law on the issue earlier this year in response.
But it's not a one-way street. Even as Tennessee and like-minded states consider elections, others are moving in the opposite direction, or toward merit appointment, in an effort to rein in the role of money and fundraising in judicial elections.
State legislators in Pennsylvania, for example, have introduced a bill to establish merit selection of appellate judges in place of direct election. In Alabama, the state's supreme court justice last month stepped down mid-term, in part citing the costs it would take to run a re-election campaign. In the years between 2000 and 2009, the state led the country in high cost judicial races, with candidates raising more than $40 million, according to Justice at Stake. Pennsylvania was third, with more than $21 million raised.
BUSINESSES LINE UP WITH ANTI-ELECTION FLANK
The legal and business communities in Tennessee at least are lining up behind the anti-election flank. They say judicial elections would lead to expensive campaigns -- that they'd be asked to bankroll -- and biased judges. They cite neighboring states like Mississippi and Alabama, where the cost of judicial elections has exploded, leading to multimillion dollar races, and some say, judges who rule for the parties that support them.
"Supporters and opponents of merit selection seem to live in two different universes," said Charles Hall, a spokesman for Justice at Stake. "Everything points to these systems being under attack in a way we did not see 10 years ago."
In Tennessee, the run-up to the new legislative session in January is sparking an intense lobbying effort on all sides. Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, says a coalition of the bar association, business groups and trial lawyers groups has held three recent meetings to decide how to tackle the issue. They plan to lobby a substantial majority of both houses of the legislature to get what they want: a continuation of the current system.
"We're trying to gear up and make sure that the business community communicates to the legislature that if we want to be the best state in the nation for business, this is one of the worst things we can do," said Bradley Jackson, an official at the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.
One possible compromise outcome: the legislature passes a constitutional amendment blessing the current system, rather than writing a new one from scratch. That may not please everybody, but with the current system set to sunset, or expire, at the end of 2012 unless the legislature extends it, Tennessee is likely to take some kind of action.
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Court-Funding Crisis Is About Politics, Not Just Money, Erwin Chemerinsky Says
By James Podgers, ABAJournal.com
September 23, 2011
The growing financial crisis facing state court systems has coincided with the economic doldrums that have existed in the United States since at least 2008. But at least one expert in law and government warned today that politics may be having just as much impact on legislative funding decisions for the courts as a lack of funds.
The nagging economic slowdown—there are fears that the United States is slipping into its second recession in five years—has been bad enough for the courts, said Erwin Chemerinsky, who is dean at the University of California at Irvine School of Law. But in looking at why state legislatures in many states are cutting funding for the courts, he says: "I think it will be a mistake if the discussion stops there. Another factor is politics, and the judiciary isn't a particularly powerful advocacy group."
Chemerinsky was the opening keynote speaker for a symposium on court funding being held this weekend at the University of Kentucky College of Law in Lexington in honor of 1971 graduate Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, who became ABA president in August. Robinson is the member in charge of the Florence, Ky., office of Frost Brown Todd. The symposium is being co-sponsored by the Kentucky Law Journal, the ABA, the National Center for State Courts and LexisNexis.
While it's difficult for members of the judiciary to engage directly in lobbying efforts with legislators, Chemerinsky said, the organized bar, which he described as the natural advocacy group to speak on behalf of the courts, still is struggling to convince legislators and the public that the viability of the courts is crucial to both protecting individual rights and bolstering the interests of the business community. That task is not getting any easier, he said, as the numbers of lawyers holding legislative seats around the country continues to drop.
Another factor, Chemerinsky said, is that the growing use of private justice mechanisms like mediation is allowing corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid using the courts to deal with legal matters.
But perhaps most important is the apparent "lack of support for the political will to fund what we need in government," Chemerinsky said. "We have to take on the larger social issue of how we convince people the government isn't an evil, that the government provides for them."
Chemerinsky's speech set the tone for much of the discussion that followed during a series of panels. In one of those panels, for instance, Lisa A. Rickard, who is president of the Institute for Legal Reform at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the chamber endorses recommendations for improving court funding that were adopted in August by the ABA House of Delegates. The recommendations were developed by the association's Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System. "These cuts could not come at a more inopportune time," she said, as more people are turning to the courts seeking remedies for problems relating to the economy.
But at the same time, she said, the business community would like to see some of its concerns about the courts addressed, such as discovery delays and third-party financing of litigation. She noted that a study commissioned by the institute indicates that small businesses in the United States face some $152 billion in tort costs, including class actions, just in 2011. Concerns about such issues can make it harder to build effective coalitions to speak on behalf of the courts, she said. "So far, we're still looking at ways to create dialogue on building a broader coalition," she said.
Despite gains, women continue to be underrepresented in law’s top jobs
By Catherine Ho, The Washington Post
September 18, 2011
While women represent nearly a third of the legal industry, only about 19 percent of partners at the nation’s law firms are female, according to an August study by the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession.
The Washington market mirrors the nationwide underrepresentation of female lawyers in top-level jobs: 46 percent of associates in the District’s law firms are female, but only 20 percent of those firms’ partners are women — pointing to problems with retention and promotion rates.
“It’s a very demanding profession and it does take a toll to meet the expectations of partnership while taking the responsibilities of a family,” said Carol Clayton, assistant managing partner at WilmerHale, where a quarter of the partners are women.
WilmerHale’s ratio is one of the highest among large law firms, which Clayton attributes to mentoring and training programs and flexible paths for advancement within the firm.
“I’m hesitant to generalize...but some women end up with a disproportionate share of responsibilities at home and do opt out,” she said. “That’s a challenge for many of us.”
Industrywide, women have made slight but steady gains over the past decade. In 2000, women represented 29 percent of the profession; by 2009, that ratio had crept up to 32 percent. But women continue to be underrepresented at the top: nationwide, women comprise 19 percent of law firm partners, 27 percent of federal appellate judges and 21 percent of law school deans.
“We’ve seen our numbers slowly increase, as all law firms have over the years, but we need to do better and make sure there are opportunities for women to get promoted to partnerships,” said Marney Cheek, a partner at the District’s largest firm Covington & Burling who co-chairs the firm’s women’s forum, a professional development initiative that includes mentoring and programming geared toward the advancement of female attorneys.
Out of Covington’s 211 equity partners firmwide, 46 — or 22 percent — are female, among the highest in a recent American Lawyer diversity survey of top 100 firms.
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Kentucky voices: Funding cuts handcuff court system – [Op-Ed]
By William T. Robinson III, Lexington Herald-Leader (Kentucky)
Sep 22, 2011
Across our nation, the public's access to justice is at risk because states are cutting their court budgets.
Fortunately, Kentucky has avoided the worst of the court funding problems we see elsewhere, but if we do not stay vigilant, our courts may face the same funding crises that plague our neighboring states.
For several years, the American Bar Association has observed a troubling trend in state court budgets — our judiciaries are being starved. In fiscal year 2010, 40 states — including Kentucky — cut funding for courts. While our governor and the Kentucky legislature deserve credit for restoring funding in this fiscal year, other court systems did not fare as well.
The judiciary is one of the three co-equal branches of government responsible for protecting our constitutional rights, deciding matters that go to the very core of our daily lives — like child custody cases — and protecting us from threats to our safety through criminal adjudication.
Yet courts typically receive just one percent or so of their state's entire budget. We do better in Kentucky, but in some states, the judiciary receives less funding than some executive branch agencies or less than it takes to build a school.
No state in America allocates more that 3.5 percent of its annual state operating budget to the judicial system.
As a consequence of shrinking budgets, courts are forced to make difficult decisions. Fifteen states have reduced the hours their courts are open. Twenty-six states have delayed filling critical judicial vacancies. In New Hampshire, all civil trials were delayed for a year.
But the cuts aren't limited to court hours and staff. A municipal court in Ohio announced that no new cases could be filed unless the litigants brought their own paper to the courthouse. In Alabama, a judge asked the charitable arm of a local bar association to donate money to help pay juror stipends.
Right now, San Francisco courts are trying to cope with chronic budget shortfalls and a growing backlog of cases following a $350 million budget cut. One court is so crowded that people arrive in the morning with lawn chairs to wait their turn in line, hoping they will reach the front before the court closes for the day. One woman filing for custody of her children and child support was forced to return — several days in a row — starting every time at the back of the line with her lawn chair.
San Francisco is a long way from Lexington, but imagine for a moment that you or someone you care about must stand in front of the bench to protect a life.
Maybe a power of attorney is needed because an elderly parent cannot make health care decisions any longer. Perhaps a child has been hurt in a serious car accident, and money is needed to pay the medical bills.
While we never think it will happen to someone we love, consider that your aunt, sister or daughter may become the victim of spousal abuse and need a restraining order.
In each of these cases, you, your friends or your family will need a court to be open. Tragically, inadequate funding means that in some places, the doors to the courthouse have a "closed" sign hanging on them. We expect that our courts will always have the resources to respond immediately to our needs, but that is no longer the case in many places.
People should never have to jump over budgetary hurdles to reach the courtroom. In Kentucky, we are much better off than many other states, but that will not be true if we lose sight of why our courts are important. Access to justice is a basic tenet of our society — it protects us. As a community, we must continue to advocate for our courts so that we always have a safe place to go when we are in need.
This Friday and Saturday in Lexington, chief justices, legal scholars, legal practitioners, bar leaders and representatives of the business community will join together for a national dialogue on the practical and constitutional impact of court underfunding.
Our goal is to ensure legislators and policymakers know that when judiciary budgets are cut, we put the rule of law at risk.
We simply cannot let that happen.
William T. Robinson III is president of the American Bar Association and member-in-charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd, LLC.
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Website allows people to evaluate Utah judges
The Associated Press
Friday, September 16, 2011
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah judges will be evaluated by people who appear in their courtrooms through a new website launched by state officials.
The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission says Thursday that comments submitted through the website by people with first-hand experience with a judge will be used to formulate a public recommendation when judges stand for retention elections.
The 13-member commission also uses surveys of attorneys who have represented clients before a judge for their recommendations.
Judges in Utah face elections every six years and must receive a majority of voter's support to continue serving on the bench.
The commission is accepting comments for the 25 judges facing election in 2012 through Nov. 1 of this year.
County issues proclamation for Pro Bono Week in October
By BRAD GASKINS, Shelby County Reporter
September 14, 2011
COLUMBIANA – The week of Oct. 23-29 is Pro Bono Week in Shelby County and across the state.
The Shelby County Commission issued a proclamation Sept. 12 to encourage all county residents “to recognize the contributions of our legal community helping those most in need.”
The week is sponsored by the Alabama State Bar and its Pro Bono Celebration Task Force and supported by local bar associations statewide.
The week will “educate the public about the extensive work Alabama lawyers are doing donating their time to improve the lives” of those living in poverty,” the proclamation reads. It will also “encourage more individuals in the legal community to get involved in pro bono work and financially support the legal aid system.”
Throughout the week, legal aid clinics will be held to provide legal assistance to those who can’t afford it. The week will also feature service projects throughout the state to help lawyers and law students make volunteer connections with legal aid organizations.
Last year, one in every four of the 940,872 state residents living in poverty experienced legal problems, according to the proclamation. Most were civil issues, including consumer issues, health issues, family law issues, employment issues and housing issues.
According to the proclamation, 6.9 percent of Shelby County residents live in poverty.
“The need for legal aid in Alabama is dire, since unlike in the criminal defense system, funding for low-income Alabamians who need civil legal assistance has not yet been met, with the consequences being a lack of access to justice which is devastating for the poor and which weakens our democratic state as a whole,” the proclamation reads.
According to the proclamation, 10 percent of the county’s legal community donates time for free legal services each year. Statewide, there are less than 55 paid legal aid lawyers to serve more than 422,119 low-income households.
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Missouri Compromised - Judicial selection the trial lawyer way – [Editorial]
The Wall Street Journal
September 15, 2011
The so-called Missouri Plan for judicial selection has become controversial in dozens of states that use it for giving disproportionate influence to liberals and trial lawyers. Now Missouri itself is again illustrating why. To fill a vacancy on the state supreme court, Missouri's judicial nominating commission has chosen a slate of three candidates that would make George Soros blush.
Leading the trio sent to Governor Jay Nixon is Joe Jacobson, a trial lawyer whose firm, Green Jacobson, is known for its work in securities fraud, lender liability and consumer class actions. A second nominee, County Circuit Judge Michael Manners, spent two decades as a trial lawyer himself, eventually serving as president of the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers. Rounding out the trio is George Draper III, a state appeals-court judge and African-American who received the fewest votes (four) from the seven nominators.
The Missouri Plan was intended to get politics out of the courtroom but has instead handed disproportionate power to trial lawyers and state bar associations. The effect has been to insulate the backroom-dealing from public scrutiny while stocking state courts with liberal judges. At a recent summit defending such "merit" selection plans in St. Louis, the Iowa Lawyer Weekly reported that in 2011 26 states considered legislation to ditch or revise their method of choosing judges.
And no wonder. Of the seven Missouri nominators, one is a current member of the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers Board of Governors, while another previously served on that board. Another is married to a local trial attorney who is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a group limited to attorneys who have won "million and multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements," according to the group's website. Also on the commission is state Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Teitelman, who moonlights as a board member of the American Judicature Society, a George Soros-funded group that pushes the Missouri Plan nationwide.
Missourians have been unhappy with the system and recent reforms partly opened the selection process for the first time, making public the formerly secret interview process for applicants for the three slots. Too bad the commission's deliberations are still under lock and key.
Governor Nixon, a Democrat, has 60 days to make his selection and some think he will select Judge Draper to avoid poking the hornet's nest of voters upset about the lawyer-dominated nominating commission and who know trial lawyers are among his biggest campaign contributors. While that may be politically wise, it won't diminish the corruption of a process that elevates nominating-commission cronies and forces the Governor's hand. It's the furthest thing from "merit" selection we can think of.
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Florida Supreme Court Adds Civility Pledge to Bar Admission Oath
Sacramento Bee (Calif.)
Sept. 14, 2011
TAMPA, Fla. -- Citing the efforts of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA), the Florida Supreme Court has revised the Oath of Admission to The Florida Bar to include a pledge of "fairness, integrity, and civility" to opponents, not only in court, but also "in all written and oral communications."
Commenting that "concerns have grown about acts of incivility among members of the legal profession," the high court noted ABOTA's efforts to stress the importance of civility in the practice of law. The Supreme Court emphasized to Florida lawyers old and new that practicing law is an honor that comes with responsibilities, paramount among which is civility, an often overlooked cornerstone of the legal profession. The Court added to the Oath of Admission the following:
To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications.
Violation of the Oath of Admission can be grounds for discipline. The change in the Oath comes as a result of sustained study by the Supreme Court, The Florida Bar, and various committees on litigation civility and professionalism.
American Bar seeking rules on when judges must step aside from cases
By Mary Orndorff, The Birmingham News
September 4, 2011
WASHINGTON -- The American Bar Association, in a newly adopted policy, is urging states to set rules for judges to step down from cases involving campaign contributors, a sign of growing national anxiety over the influence of political money in the judicial system.
"It does raise it to the national level and starts the debates in the state legislatures, but more importantly it's on the radar of the chief justices of every state," said Tommy Wells, a Birmingham lawyer and former president of the ABA.
Alabama was at the forefront 16 years ago, when legislators passed a law calling for local judges to recuse themselves if a party or their lawyer contributed $2,000 to the judge's election; $4,000 for state appellate judges. But in a quirky stalemate between the Alabama Attorney General's Office and the Alabama Supreme Court, the law has never been enforced.
The issue has only gotten more serious since the Alabama law was passed. Spending on judicial elections has skyrocketed; questions about whether judges should be picked in partisan elections have increased; and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that campaign donations can create a risk of bias by the judge, and, separately, that corporations or labor unions can independently spend unlimited amounts to influence elections.
"The mere possibility that a vast influx of additional campaign money might enter (judicial elections), which already in the past decade has been saturated with unprecedented campaign support, virulent attack ads, and concomitant diminution in public respect for state judiciaries, makes tighter controls over disqualification imperative," ABA officials wrote in a recent report. "Thus there is an urgent need for states to have in place prompt, effective, and transparent disqualification procedures."
The ABA's House of Delegates, in its annual meeting in August, overwhelmingly approved the resolution calling for disclosure of campaign donations from litigants and lawyers to the judge hearing their case, and guidelines for when those donations would require the judge to remove himself from the case.
"This gets to the whole issue of the public's respect for the rule of law and does the public have confidence in the judiciary to be fair and impartial," said William Weisenberg of the Ohio State Bar Association, who presented the resolution at the ABA meeting in Toronto.
The ABA policy does not dictate specific rules, leaving the details up to the states. But it does call for clear disclosure of campaign finances so that judges, lawyers and the public have the complete picture to make a decision about disqualifying a judge. Wells said the disclosure should include direct donations to a judge's campaign as well as independent campaign expenditures made on a judge's behalf.
"You have to trace the money," Wells said. "We've done a better job of that in Alabama with the ban on PAC-to-PAC transfers, but it is still not as transparent as it probably needs to be to make that statute effective even if it were being enforced. If I gave money to a PAC and that PAC gave money to a judge, how do you know that's my money?"
Alabama's recusal law has never been enforced. The Alabama Supreme Court says it can't write the rules to implement the law until the U.S. Justice Department signs off that it doesn't disenfranchise minority voters; but the Alabama Attorney General's Office says no such federal approval is necessary and has refused to submit it to Washington. A lawsuit filed by a member of the Anniston City Council trying to force action recently was dismissed, though the issue could be revisited.
Thirty-nine states elect their judges, and the ABA said 20 percent of them have started to reexamine the issue of disqualification since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009 regarding campaign contributions creating the appearance of bias.
"Judges each and every day decide cases and they do it with honor and distinction but there are situations that arise that raise questions," Weisenberg said. "Public perception is very important."
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On the move
The Birmingham News
September 7, 2011
• Sirote & Permutt attorney Marcus M. Maples has been elected to the executive committee of the Alabama State Bar's Young Lawyers Section. The section conducts seminars and sponsors service projects designed to aid the public and assist in solving legal problems. Maples' practice consists of general business and commercial litigation matters.
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Abrahamson releases more details for court changes
SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press
September 6, 2011
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — After a tumultuous year in which one justice was accused of trying to choke another, it's clear that the Wisconsin Supreme Court needs to change, and one change the court's seven members might want consider is allowing the public to watch them deliberate cases, the chief justice said Tuesday.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson released a memo that included several proposed changes to the court, and the high court was expected to discuss her ideas during an open administrative conference on Sept. 15.
Abrahamson said no one on the court was blameless for its problems, which were brought most publically to light by the embarrassing allegations that one justice choked another one during private discussions over the state's collective bargaining law.
"This has been a difficult year — for the country, for the state, and for this court," Abrahamson wrote in her memo released Tuesday. "The bitter divisions in the Legislature, state and federal, have affected public confidence, and we have had our own problems. They certainly have not been hidden."
To help increase the public's confidence in the court, Abrahamson said it should allow them to watch the justices discuss whether to take up cases and their deliberations over how to rule after oral arguments are made.
That may mean holding those discussions in the room where people could sit and watch them live, stream the debate over television, or tape the talks and release the footage, or transcripts, after the court's opinion is published, she said.
"Transparency will help assure the public that we are working in a collegial fashion and doing the job we were elected to do," Abrahamson said.
She also proposed the justices work on conflict resolution, issue a joint statement pledging to work together in a collegial atmosphere and hold more oral arguments outside of Madison.
Her ideas come after allegations by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley that she was choked by Justice David Prosser in June while they were discussing the timing of releasing the court's opinion on whether a polarizing collective bargaining bill could become law. Prosser said he raised his arms in defense after Abrahamson charged him.
A special prosecutor last month declined to press criminal charges, saying the versions of what actually happened were too different. The state's Judicial Commission, which enforces the code of conduct for judges, is also investigating and could discipline the justices.
The incident was the most high profile and embarrassing for the court, which has been suffering from a string of internal conflicts for years. Many of the rifts reflect the court's 4-3 ideological divide, currently favoring conservatives like Prosser.
Abrahamson, a member of the more liberal minority, said she didn't necessarily support all of the ideas presented in her memo, but she felt they warranted discussion.
"Change is always difficult, but present circumstances demand change," she said.
Abrahamson proposed numerous changes related to recusal, including supporting a change in the law to require judges to take themselves off cases whenever a reasonable person would conclude there's an appearance of impropriety.
The issue of when justices should recuse themselves has been fought bitterly in recent years as the money spent on campaigns by special interest groups, many of them represented by attorneys with cases pending before the court, increases along with the partisan nature of the campaigns.
For example, following Justice Michael Gableman's victory in 2008, several defense attorneys argued he should not be allowed to sit on criminal cases because he was biased against criminal defendants.
The court has considered changes to the recusal process for years.
Abrahamson promised to begin outlining more changes, affecting how court opinions are released and the selection of justices, at next week's meeting.
Currently, justices are elected in elections that are supposed to be nonpartisan. But recent ones, particularly the Gableman race, have drawn scorn from court observers for their high spending and partisan tone.
"We should be, above all, a place where disputes are resolved — openly, civilly, professionally — not where they are created," said Abrahamson, a member of the court since 1976 and chief justice since 1996.
Candidates for Missouri Supreme Court face public questioning
BY JASON HANCOCK, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
September 1, 2011
JEFFERSON CITY • A sparse crowd turned out Wednesday to watch candidates for an open seat on the Missouri Supreme Court face questions from the judicial nominating commission, the first time the interview process has been conducted in public.
Interviewees took turns answering questions from a panel made up of three lawyers chosen by the Missouri Bar, three citizens selected by the governor, and Chief Justice Richard Teitelman. Avoiding controversial topics, questions centered on subjects like legal careers and how their experience -- both professionally and personally-- would influence their decisions if they were chosen to be on the state’s highest court.
Judges in most Missouri counties are voted onto the bench in partisan elections. But in urban areas and for regional appeals courts and the Supreme Court, the state uses a merit-based, nonpartisan method to select judges. One applicant who interviewed Wednesday, St. Peters attorney Richard Gartner, took the opportunity to praise the state’s merit-based judicial selection method for “focusing on credentials.”
“These positions need the most qualified people, and the only way we are going to get them is to select them like this,” said Gartner, who has run unsuccessfully three times for judicial positions. He went on to joke that he appreciated the process even more because he is "such a bad politician."
In discussing her view that justices on the Supreme Court should be consensus builders, Lisa White Hardwick – who serves as chief judge on Missouri Western District Court of Appeals -- said having a diversity of perspective and a diversity of background on the court is important.
The commission pointed out early on that there is currently no representative from the state’s southern judicial district on the Supreme Court. The only interviewee from that district is Timothy Cisar, an attorney with Cisar Law Firm in Lake Ozark. Cisar is also the only interviewee that was nominated by a citizen.
Interviews will continue Thursday morning. Once complete, the commission with deliberate in private and by days end will send three names to Gov. Jay Nixon, who will have 60 days to choose the next Supreme Court justice from that group.
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