TagState courts

Ballotpedia publishes state court partisanship study

Each state has at least one supreme court, or court of last resort. Oklahoma and Texas each have two such courts, one for civil appeals and one for criminal appeals. Ballotpedia Courts: State Partisanship—a culmination of eight months of research and compilation of raw data—supplies Partisan Confidence Scores for 341 active state supreme court justices on all 52 courts of last resort. 

We gathered a variety of data on each justice and, based on that data, placed each justice into one of five categories indicating our confidence in their affiliations with either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

These categories are Strong Democratic ConfidenceMild Democratic ConfidenceIndeterminate ConfidenceMild Republican Confidence, and Strong Republican Confidence

The study does not specifically describe the partisan affiliation of judges. We call our scores Confidence Scores because we believe they provide insight into the degree of confidence we have in each justice’s political leanings because of their previous partisan activity.

Here are some of the key findings from the study:

  1. Of the 341 justices studied, we assigned Republican scores to 178 (52.2%), Democratic scores to 114 (33.4%), and Indeterminate scores to 49 (14.4%). 
  2. Twenty-seven states (54%) have a majority of justices with Republican scores. Fifteen state supreme courts (30%) have a majority of justices with Democratic scores. Eight state supreme courts (16%) do not have a majority of justices with Democratic scores or Republican scores. 
  3. 39.9% of the population live in a state which has a majority of justices with Democratic scores on the court. 51.1% of citizens live in a state which has a majority of justices with Republican scores on the court. 9% of citizens live in a state with a split court, or a court with a majority of justices with indeterminate partisan leanings. 

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New York Court of Appeals Justice Eugene Fahey announces retirement

On November 10, 2020, State of New York Court of Appeals Justice Eugene Fahey announced his retirement from the court, scheduled for December 31, 2021, when he reaches the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70 years old.

Justice Fahey joined the State of New York Court of Appeals in 2015. He was appointed to the court by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

Before serving on the state supreme court, Fahey served on the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division from December 22, 2006, until 2015. He served on the court’s Criminal Division in 2005. Fahey was elected to the State Supreme Court in 1996, where he also presided over cases in Erie County and the 8th Judicial District. He served on the court until 2005. Fahey was elected to the Buffalo City Court in 1994 and served until 1996. He served as a law clerk to Judge Edgar C. NeMoyer in the New York Court of Claims before entering private practice in 1985, where he served as house counsel for Kemper Insurance Company until 1993. Fahey served on the Buffalo Common Council from 1978 to 1983 and again from 1988 to 1994.

Fahey earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the State University of New York at Buffalo, cum laude, in 1974. He earned a J.D. in 1984 and a master’s degree in European history in 1998.

The seven justices of the New York Court of Appeals serve 14-year terms. They are appointed by the governor from a list of candidates provided by a judicial nominating commission, pending confirmation from the New York Senate.

The current chief justice of the court is Janet DiFiore, who was appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2015. 

The remaining four active justices of the court are:

• Jenny Rivera – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2013

• Michael Garcia – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2016

• Rowan Wilson – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2017

• Paul Feinman – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2017

Associate Justice Leslie Stein is also scheduled to retire from the court in 2021, on June 4. At the time of the announcement, no reason was given for Stein’s retirement.

As of November 16, 2020, there are four supreme court vacancies scheduled to occur in 2021 in three of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies were triggered by retirements.

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Justice on New York’s highest court schedules retirement

On November 3, 2020, State of New York Court of Appeals Justice Leslie Stein announced her retirement from the court, scheduled for June 4, 2021. At the time of the announcement, no reason for Stein’s retirement was given.

Justice Stein joined the State of New York Court of Appeals in 2015. She was appointed to the court by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

Before serving on the state supreme court, Stein was a judge with the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division (Third Department) from 2008 to 2015. From 2001 to 2008, she served as a judge with the New York Supreme Court 3rd Judicial District. During that time, she served as an administrative judge of the Rensselaer County Integrated Domestic Violence Part from 2006 to 2008 and as the chair of the 3rd Judicial District Gender Fairness Committee from 2001 to 2005. Stein served as a city court judge with the Albany City Court from 1997 to 2001. She also served as an acting family court judge in 2001. From 1983 to 1997, Stein worked as a private practice lawyer. In 1981, Stein worked as a confidential law clerk for the Schenectady County Family Court.

Stein earned an undergraduate degree from Macalester College in 1978. She earned a J.D. from the Albany Law School in 1981.

The seven justices of the New York Court of Appeals serve 14-year terms. They are appointed by the governor from a list of candidates provided by a judicial nominating commission, pending confirmation from the New York Senate. The New York Court of Appeals is the state’s court of last resort.

The current chief justice of the court is Janet DiFiore, who was appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2015. 

The remaining five active justices of the court are:

  • Jenny Rivera – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2013
  • Eugene Fahey – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2015
  • Michael Garcia – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2016
  • Rowan Wilson – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2017
  • Paul Feinman – Appointed by Gov. Cuomo in 2017

As of November 9, 2020, there are three supreme court vacancies scheduled to occur in 2021 in three of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies were caused by retirements.

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Illinois Supreme Court decides case allowing suspended police officers to seek backpay

On October 22, 2020, the Illinois Supreme Court decided Goral v. Dart, a case on police officers’ right to due process to claim backpay. 

The case concerned a decision regarding the legitimacy of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s Merit Board. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld an appellate court’s decision which determined that officers suspended without pay could sue the sheriff’s office over the legitimacy of the merit board’s determination that those officers would be suspended without pay. The decision allows the officers to resume their case in circuit court where they may seek repayment for lost wages during their suspensions.

Justice P. Scott Neville (D) wrote the majority opinion in the case and was joined by Justices Thomas Kilbride (D) and Lloyd Karmeier (R) as well as Chief Justice Anne M. Burke (D). Justice Michael J. Burke (R) dissented, with opinion, joined by Justices Rita Garman (R) and Mary Jane Theis (D).

Attorneys Chris Cooper and Cass Casper, attorneys for the suspended police officers, said “Today Tom Dart is being told in crystal clear language that the officers are entitled to due process and entitled to their backpay.”

Sheriff’s office spokesman Matthew Walberg said, “Today’s Illinois Supreme Court decision is a catastrophic blow to law enforcement accountability… The decision rewards employees who engaged in criminal, unethical and despicable conduct at the expense of Illinois taxpayers.”

The election on November 3, 2020, will decide three seats on the Illinois Supreme Court:

  • District 1: Justices Neville is up for election. He was appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill a vacancy on the court. Illinois is the only state in the country that allows the state supreme court to choose who fills a vacant seat on the court. 
  • District 3: Justice Kilbride faces a yes-no retention election to keep his seat on the state supreme court. 
  • District 5: Justice Karmeier’s seat is also up for election. Karmeier announced his retirement on December 6, 2019. 

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California governor appoints Jenkins as first nominee to state supreme court

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) appointed Martin Jenkins to the California Supreme Court on October 5, 2020. Pending confirmation by the state Commission on Judicial Appointments, Jenkins will succeed Justice Ming Chin, who retired on August 31, 2020. Jenkins is Newsom’s first nominee to the seven-member supreme court.

Under California law, state supreme court justices are recommended by the Commission on Judicial Nominee Evaluation to the governor. The governor then selects the new justice, who must be confirmed by the state Commission on Judicial Appointments.

Jenkins was an associate judge on the California First District Court of Appeal, Division Three, from 2008 to 2019. He was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). He stepped down in 2019 after Gov. Newsom appointed Jenkins as judicial appointments secretary.

From 1997 to 2008, Jenkins was a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. President Bill Clinton (D) nominated Jenkins on July 24, 1997, to a seat vacated by Eugene Lynch. The U.S. Senate confirmed Jenkins on November 9, 1997, and he received commission on November 12. Jenkins served on the Northern District of California until his resignation on April 3, 2008.

Jenkins earned his A.A. from the City College of San Francisco in 1973, his B.A. from Santa Clara University (formerly the University of Santa Clara) in 1976, and his J.D. from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 1980.

A press release from Gov. Newsom’s office said Jenkins “would be the first openly gay California Supreme Court justice and only the third African American man ever to serve on the state’s highest court. It has been 29 years since an African American man has served on the California Supreme Court.”

The California Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort. As of October 2020, four judges on the court were appointed by Democratic governors and two judges were appointed by Republican governors.

In 2020, there have been 21 supreme court vacancies in 16 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. One vacancy occurred when a chief justice died, and 20 vacancies were caused by retirements.

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Finalists for open Hawaii Supreme Court seat announced September 29, Gov. Ige to make selection by October 29

Hawaii’s judicial nominating commission published its list of four nominees for a state supreme court vacancy on September 29, 2020. The nominees are Judge Todd Eddins, David Forman, Judge Darolyn Lendio Heim, and Benjamin Lowenthal. Gov. David Ige (D) will appoint one of the four to the state supreme court with consent from the state Senate. Ige has 30 days to select his nominee after receiving the list.

The vacancy occurred when Justice Richard W. Pollack reached the mandatory retirement age of 70 years and retired on June 30, 2020. Pollack joined the court in 2012. His replacement will be the first nomination Gov. Ige makes to the five-member state supreme court. The most recent appointment to the court was made in 2014 by Ige’s predecessor, Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D).

In Hawaii, state supreme court justices are chosen through the assisted appointment method. Under this appointment method, Hawaii’s judicial nominating committee recommends four to six potential nominees to the governor, who chooses a nominee from the list. The governor’s nominee requires confirmation from the Hawaii State Senate. Justices serve 10-year terms. If they wish to serve additional terms, they must stand for retention before the state judicial nominating commission. 

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia use the assisted appointment method for their courts of last resort. Seven states use gubernatorial or legislative appointments, 15 use nonpartisan elections, and six use partisan elections.

As of October 1, 2020, 21 state supreme court seats had been vacated in 2020, 10 vacancies had been filled, and 11 remained vacant.

Additional reading:
Assisted appointment (judicial selection)
Hawaii Supreme Court
Hawaii Judicial Selection Commission



One Minnesota Supreme Court seat up for nonpartisan election in November

The seat of Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Thissen will be up for a nonpartisan election on November 3. Thissen is seeking re-election against Michelle L. MacDonald.

Despite the normal method of judicial selection being a nonpartisan election, every justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court was initially appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy. Five of the justices were appointed by Democratic governors while two were appointed by Republican governors.

Barry Anderson: appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) in 2004

Margaret Chutich: appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton (D) in 2016

Lorie Gildea: appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) in 2006

Natalie Hudson: appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton (D) in 2015

Gordon Moore: appointed by Gov. Tim Walz (D) in 2020

Anne K. McKeig: appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton (D) in 2016

Paul Thissen: appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton (D) in 2018

The justices on the Minnesota Supreme Court are elected in nonpartisan elections for six-year terms. The candidates compete in primaries in which the top two contestants advance to the general election. Whenever a vacancy occurs, the governor appoints a replacement who then remains in the seat until the next general election occurring at least one year after their appointment. At this time, the appointed justice must run for re-election as the incumbent in a nonpartisan election.

Across all types of state supreme court elections, incumbent justices running for re-election won 93% of the time from 2008-2019. Minnesota has not seen an incumbent supreme court justice lose an election during this same time frame.

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Former Ohio secretary of state challenges Justice Judith French for a seat on the Ohio Supreme Court 

Incumbent Judith French and Jennifer L. Brunner are running in the general election for Ohio Supreme Court on November 3, 2020.

Justice French was appointed to the Ohio Supreme Court by Gov. John Kasich (R). She assumed office on January 1, 2013. She advanced from the Republican primary for Ohio Supreme Court on April 28, 2020. Her previous political experience includes serving as chief legal council for Gov. Bob Taft (R) from 2002 through 2004 and as assistant attorney general to Betty Montgomery (R) from 1997 through 2002.

Brunner advanced from the Democratic primary for Ohio Supreme Court on April 28, 2020. She served as Ohio secretary of state from 2007 until 2011 and was elected to the 10th District Court of Appeals in 2014.

Two justices of the Ohio Supreme Court face re-election this year. In addition to Justice French, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy will stand for re-election. Justice Kennedy advanced from the Republican primary for Ohio Supreme Court on April 28, 2020.

Two justices currently on the Ohio Supreme Court have advanced from Democratic primaries to win the general election, and five justices on the Ohio Supreme Court have advanced from Republican primaries to win the general election. If both incumbents are defeated in the November general election, the court will have a majority of justices who have advanced from Democratic primaries.

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Two Nevada Supreme Court seats are up for nonpartisan election in November

The seats of Nevada Supreme Court Justices Mark Gibbons and Kris Pickering will be up for nonpartisan election on November 3, 2020. Pickering is seeking re-election while Gibbons is not. Pickering is unopposed for the November election to reclaim her seat. Ozzie Fumo and Douglas Herndon will face each other in an effort to fill Gibbons’ seat on the court.

Almost every justice on the court won their seat in a nonpartisan election. The lone exception is Justice Stiglich, who was appointed by Republican Governor Brian Sandoval in 2016.

Justices on the Nevada Supreme Court are elected in nonpartisan elections for six-year terms. Whenever a vacancy occurs, the governor appoints a replacement.

Across all types of state supreme court elections, incumbent justices running for re-election won 93% of the time from 2008-2019. Nevada has not seen an incumbent supreme court justice lose an election during this same time frame.

Additional reading:
Nevada Supreme Court
Kris Pickering
Mark Gibbons
Ozzie Fumo
Douglas Herndon
Incumbent win rates



Washington Supreme Court to review county sheriff recall petition on November 5

The Washington Supreme Court agreed to review a petition seeking to recall Jerry Hatcher from his position as Benton County Sheriff. Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Scott Wolfram initially approved the recall petition on August 20, but Hatcher filed an appeal against that decision with the state supreme court. Hatcher’s appeal will be considered by the court on November 5, 2020.
 
The Benton County Sheriff’s Guild is leading the recall effort. They said Hatcher had performed his duties in an improper manner, committed illegal acts, and violated his oath of office. Hatcher said the guild was refusing to hold deputies accountable for their actions. He said the guild would not let him take disciplinary action against employees who committed wrongdoing.
 
If the appeal is rejected, recall supporters will be able to circulate petitions. Recall supporters must collect 14,000 signatures to get the recall on the ballot.
 
In 2019, Ballotpedia covered a total of 151 recall efforts against 230 elected officials. Of the 66 officials whose recalls made it to the ballot, 34 were recalled for a rate of 52%. That was lower than the 63% rate and 57% rate for 2018 and 2017 recalls, respectively.

Additional reading:
Recall campaigns in Washington
Political recall efforts, 2020
County official recalls