Legislators to Target State Courts in 2015

In the upcoming legislative session in a handful of states, lawmakers are expected to propose legislation aimed at courts and judges.

Some Washington legislators have filed a bill that would make the state's judicial elections partisan. The lawmakers readily admit that the bill is in response to the court ordering the legislature to spend more on public education and then holding it in contempt for not doing more to comply with the order. According to one sponsor, the bill is more of a “poke” than a serious proposal. (The legislature has also decided not to set aside time this month for the chief justice to deliver the traditional State of the Judiciary address.)

Two bills that Wisconsin lawmakers plan to file in 2015 would impact Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, though sponsors assert that is not their intention. The first would impose a mandatory retirement age of 75 for justices. Abrahamson is 81 and would be immediately removed from the court under the proposal. The second would allow members of the supreme court to elect the chief justice, rather than designating the most senior justice as chief. In the past, some conservatives have been unhappy with the way Abrahamson has exercised her authority as chief.

The Kansas legislature, with backing from Governor Sam Brownback, will likely take up a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way supreme court justices are chosen. In 2013, legislators by statute shifted the process for selecting court of appeals judges from commission-based appointment to gubernatorial appointment with senate confirmation. Some Republicans are hopeful that a recent supreme court decision overturning capital murder convictions for two brothers convicted of a quadruple murder will provide the necessary impetus to amend the constitution. Legislators may also work to change the composition of the judicial nominating commission.

On a more positive front, legislatures in Minnesota and Oregon will seek to replace nonpartisan elections for judges with commission-based appointment, and West Virginia lawmakers will pursue a move from partisan to nonpartisan judicial elections.