Tagstate supreme court

Colorado Supreme Court rules that state board must defer to disciplinary actions taken by other state agencies

Photo of Colorado State Supreme Court building

On Dec. 21, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in DOC v. Stiles that the Colorado State Personnel Board (Board) must defer to disciplinary decisions made by state agencies. The court’s decision aimed to shed light on the standard the Board must apply when reviewing other state agencies’ disciplinary decisions. 

The court held that when the Board considers appeals of decisions to discipline agency employees, they must apply the “arbitrary, capricious, or contrary to rule or law” standard instead of reviewing the facts of the case on a de novo basis. 

The arbitrary or capricious standard instructs the Board to give deference to the disciplinary action taken by the state agency. It prevents the Board from overturning such actions unless the agency failed to give honest consideration to the evidence involved in the case or violated a law or rule. De novo review would allow the Board to evaluate the evidence in the case and make its own decision without regard for the earlier conclusions made by the state agency that decided to discipline an employee.

The court remanded the case back to the state administrative law judge (ALJ), working for the Board, who had overruled the state agency disciplinary action at issue in the case. 

In the opening paragraph of the opinion announcing the decision, Justice Carlos Samour wrote about the stakes of the case in the following way: “At a micro level, it will affect whether Mathew Mark Stiles keeps his job at the Department of Corrections (“DOC”). At a macro level, it will affect the 30,000-plus other certified state employees in Colorado’s personnel system.”

The standard articulated by the Colorado Supreme Court is similar to the arbitrary-or-capricious test established by the federal Administrative Procedure Act. Under that test, courts reviewing agency actions invalidate any that they find to be “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”

To learn more about state administrative law judges or judicial deference, see here:

Additional reading:

Text of the decision:

Control of Alaska House of Representatives remains uncertain after Alaska Supreme Court decision

The Alaska Supreme Court confirmed Alaska Representative Lance Pruitt’s (R) 11-vote loss to Democratic challenger Liz Snyder on Friday, January 8. The court ruled that Pruitt did not provide sufficient evidence to sustain his challenge of the election results.

Pruitt’s loss means that control of the chamber will likely remain uncertain until at least January 19, when lawmakers will convene in Juneau for the start of the legislative session. As a result of this decision, the Alaska House of Representatives is currently split between a 20-member Republican faction and a multi-partisan coalition of 16 Democrats (including Snyder), three independents, and Republican Louise Stutes. Had Pruitt won, it could have given the Republican wing of the House the 21 votes needed to control the chamber.

Pruitt’s lawsuit centered on the argument that the state did not adequately notify the public when the Alaska Division of Elections moved a polling location and that the Division of Elections did not provide suitable election security in regard to absentee ballots. Pruitt’s attorney in the case, Stacey Stone, said that Pruitt will not pursue any further action to contest the results of the election. “The integrity of our election system serves as the foundation of our government. We respect the decision of the court today, but we hope the Division (of Elections) addresses the issues that occurred in Precinct 915 so that these type of events do not occur in the future, and that all voters constitutional rights are guaranteed. We await the supreme court’s full opinion as to how they addressed the multiple points on appeal,” Stone said. After the verdict was announced, Snyder said, “It was great to see that come out the way we anticipated it.”

Although Republicans won a 23-16 majority with one independent in the 2018 elections, a coalition of 15 Democrats, four Republicans, and two independents elected Bryce Edgmon (I) as House speaker on February 14, 2019. The parties split control of key leadership positions and committees and Edgmon was elected speaker after leaving the Democratic Party. The House majority consisted of 15 Democrats, eight Republicans, and two members unaffiliated with either party. Of the eight Republicans who joined the majority coalition in 2018, only Steve M. Thompson and Louise Stutes were re-elected in 2020.

Eighty-six of 99 state legislative chambers across 44 states held general elections on November 3, 2020. Heading into the 2020 elections, Republicans had majorities in 59 chambers and Democrats had majorities in 39 chambers. Partisan control flipped in two chambers—Republicans gained majorities in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and the New Hampshire State Senate.

Additional reading:

Gov. Sununu (R) to nominate Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to New Hampshire Supreme Court

On January 6, 2021, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) announced that he will renominate Attorney General Gordan MacDonald (R) to the New Hampshire State Supreme Court. 

In New Hampshire, the governor makes nominations to the state supreme court and those nominees are then subject to the approval of the Executive Council. In order for the nominee to become a justice on the court, a majority of the members of the council must vote to approve them. 

Sununu appointed MacDonald to the State Supreme Court in 2019, but the Executive Council rejected MacDonald’s nomination. Councilman Andru Volinksy (D) stated, “Mr. MacDonald has worked for and supported highly partisan politicians with shockingly extreme views.” After MacDonald was rejected, Sununu left the seat vacant throughout 2020. Sununu said, “If someone of Gordon MacDonald’s character and background is going to be dragged through the mud like this, why would I dare do it to anybody else?”

The first time Sununu nominated MacDonald, there were three Democrats and two Republicans on the Executive Council. In November 2020, every seat on the Executive Council was up for election. The balance on the Executive Council is now one Democrat and four Republicans. 

In our Ballotpedia Courts: State Partisanship study, we analyzed the partisan data on each state supreme court in the country. In our study, we found that two justices on the court have Republican affiliations, one justice on the court has Democratic affiliations, and one justice on the court has an indeterminate party affiliation. If the Executive Council approves MacDonald, a majority of the justices on the court will have Republican party affiliations.

Additional Reading:

New Hampshire Executive Council election, 2020

Ballotpedia Courts: State Partisanship

California Supreme Court rules that 2016 ballot measure made certain sex offenders eligible for early parole

On December 28, 2020, the California Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, ruled that Proposition 57’s provision to increase parole opportunities for those convicted of nonviolent offenses applies to sex offenders. California Proposition 57 was approved at the election on November 8, 2016, receiving 64.5% of the vote.

Proposition 57 required the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) to enact a parole review program in which felons convicted of nonviolent crimes could be released on parole upon the completion of the sentence for his or her offense with the longest imprisonment term. The CDCR adopted a regulation that excluded persons convicted of sexual offenses from the definition of nonviolent offender.

The Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws (ACSOL) sued the department, arguing that the CDCR’s categorical exclusion of people convicted of sexual offenses was not consistent with Proposition 57. Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a sponsor of Proposition 57, argued that the ballot initiative did not grant earlier parole hearings to sex offenders.

The state Supreme Court ruled that the CDCR’s regulations creating a categorical exclusion of people convicted for registrable sex offenses from earlier parole were unconstitutional. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote the court’s opinion. Cantil-Sakauye stated that Proposition 57 entitled sex offenders convicted of crimes considered nonviolent to parole hearings. Justice Cantil-Sakauye also wrote that being eligible for parole hearings does not require an earlier release of an inmate. Regulations allow parole boards to consider a person’s threat to public safety in determining eligibility for early release.

Voters rejected Proposition 20, a measure that would have amended Proposition 57, on November 3, 2020. Proposition 20 would have defined 51 crimes and sentence enhancements, including some additional sexual crimes, as violent in order to exclude them from Proposition 57’s nonviolent offender parole program. Proposition 20 would have also made specific types of theft and fraud crimes, including firearm theft, vehicle theft, and unlawful use of a credit card, chargeable as misdemeanors or felonies, rather than misdemeanors. 

Amending Proposition 57, which is coded in the California Constitution, would require a ballot measure. For the state Legislature to propose an amendment, a two-thirds vote is required in each legislative chamber. For a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment, 997,139 signatures would be required. Constitutional amendments, whether proposed by the legislature or ballot initiative, require voter approval to be enacted.

Additional reading:

Republicans pick up two seats on North Carolina Supreme Court

The results of the 2020 election affected the partisan composition of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Going into the election, Democrats had a 6-1 majority on the court. Republicans held one seat and picked up two net seats, giving Democrats a 4-3 majority.

Paul Martin Newby (R) defeated Cheri Beasley (D) in the partisan November 3 election for the chief justice seat. Tamara Barringer (R) defeated incumbent Mark Davis (D) for Seat 4 while Phil Berger Jr. (R) defeated Lucy Inman (D) for Seat 2, which was left open by Newby.

The race for the chief justice seat was especially competitive. On December 15, 2020, a hand-to-eye recount in the race for chief justice showed Newby defeated Beasley by 401 votes. Beasley had previously conceded the race on December 12.

North Carolina election law allowed statewide candidates to request a recount if 10,000 votes or 0.5% of the total votes cast (whichever was less) separated them from an election winner. On November 17, Beasley’s campaign officially requested a statewide machine recount. The statewide machine recount was completed on December 2, with Newby maintaining his lead. Following the release of results, Beasley’s campaign requested a hand-to-eye recount to be conducted in randomly selected precincts.

2022 could be another competitive year in the North Carolina Supreme Court. The seats held by justices Robin Hudson (D) and Sam Ervin (D) will be up for election on November 8, 2022, meaning Republicans could gain control of the court or Democrats could hold their majority.

Starting with the 2018 election, the seven justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court began to be chosen by partisan election. This became law in December 2016. Before that, the election of appellate judges had been nonpartisan since 2004. In the event of a midterm vacancy, the outgoing judge is replaced via assisted appointment. With the help of a judicial nominating commission, the governor appoints a successor to serve until the next general election occurring more than 60 days after the vacancy occurred. A judge is then elected.

Additional reading:

Melissa Standridge sworn in as Kansas Supreme Court justice

Melissa Standridge was sworn in on Dec. 14 as a justice on the Kansas Supreme Court. Gov. Laura Kelly (D) appointed Standridge on Nov. 30 to succeed Justice Carol Beier, who retired on Sept. 18. Standridge was Gov. Kelly’s third nominee to the seven-member supreme court.

Under Kansas law, the governor selects a supreme court justice from a list submitted by the Kansas Supreme Court Nominating Commission.

Prior to her appointment, Standridge was a judge on the Kansas Court of Appeals from 2008 to 2020. She was appointed to that court by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D). Before that, Standridge was chambers counsel for Magistrate Judge David Waxse of the United States District Court for the District of Kansas from 1999 to 2008; an attorney for Shook, Hardy & Bacon from 1995 to 1999; and chambers counsel for Judge Elmo Hunter of the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri from 1993 to 1995.

Standridge earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Kansas in 1984. She received a J.D. from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Law Review.

In 2020, there have been 23 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, one vacancy occurred when a justice was not retained, and 21 vacancies were caused by retirements.

Additional reading:

Todd Eddins joins Hawaii Supreme Court 

Image of the Hawaii Supreme Court building in Honolulu.

Todd Eddins was sworn in to the Hawaii Supreme Court as an associate justice on Dec. 11. Founded in 1959, the Hawaii Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort and has five judgeships. Of the five current justices, Democratic governors appointed four, and a Republican governor—Linda Lingle—appointed one. 

Gov. David Ige (D) appointed Eddins on Oct. 23 to replace retired Justice Richard W. Pollack. Pollack retired on June 30 when he met the mandatory retirement age of 70. The Hawaii State Senate unanimously confirmed Eddins on Nov. 19. Before joining the court, Eddins was a judge of the O`ahu First Circuit Court from 2017 to 2020.

Hawaii’s supreme court justices are selected using the assisted appointment method of judicial selection. The Hawaii Judicial Selection Commission forwards a list of candidates to the governor, who then appoints a candidate who must then be confirmed by the Hawaii State Senate. Justices serve renewable 10-year terms, which are approved or denied by the Hawaii Judicial Selection Commission. 

Eddins was Gov. Ige’s first nomination to the Hawaii Supreme Court. Upon nominating Eddins, Gov. Ige said, “Judge Eddins has the vast knowledge and experience necessary to serve on the Hawai‘i Supreme Court. He has the respect of his peers and I know that he will be a welcome addition to the state’s highest court.”  

In 2020, there have been 23 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, one vacancy occurred when a justice was not retained, and 21 vacancies were caused by retirements. As of Dec. 14, 20 of those vacancies have been filled.  

Additional reading: 

Rhode Island governor nominates two justices to state supreme court

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) made her first and second nominations to the state Supreme Court on December 8, 2020. Raimondo nominated Erin Lynch Prata to succeed Justice Gilbert Indeglia, who retired on June 30, 2020, and Melissa Long to succeed Justice Francis Flaherty, who is retiring on December 31, 2020.

Selection of Supreme Court justices begins with the Judicial Nominating Commission. The commission submits three to five names to the Governor of Rhode Island, and upon receiving the names, the governor selects and appoints one. The nominations must be confirmed by both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly, which have Democratic majorities as of the nominations.

Before Justice Indeglia’s retirement, all five judges on the court were appointed by a Republican governor. If both nominees are confirmed, the Rhode Island Supreme Court will have a majority of female justices for the first time in the state’s history. Long would also be the first black justice to sit on the court.

Additional reading:

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice to retire in June 2021

Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Joel Bolger is retiring on June 30, 2021. Bolger’s replacement will be Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) second nominee to the five-member supreme court.

Bolger joined the Alaska Supreme Court in 2013. He was appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) to succeed Justice Walter Carpeneti. He became chief justice of the court in July 2018. Bolger is the only justice to have served on every level in the Alaska state court system. Before joining the Alaska Supreme Court, Bolger was a judge on the Alaska Court of Appeals from 2008 to 2013, the Kodiak Superior Court from 2003 to 2008, and the Valdez District Court from 1997 to 2003. Bolger received his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Iowa in 1976 and his J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1978.

Under Alaska law, state supreme court justices are selected by the governor with help from a seven-member nominating commission. The commission provides a list of two or more candidates to the governor, who must choose from that list. New justices serve an initial term of at least three years, after which the justice must stand for retention in a yes-no election to remain on the bench. Subsequent terms last 10 years. The chief justice of the supreme court is selected by peer vote and serves a three-year term.

In addition to Chief Justice Bolger, the Alaska Supreme Court currently includes the following justices:

  • Daniel Winfree – Appointed by Gov. Sarah Palin (R) in 2008
  • Peter Maassen – Appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in 2012
  • Susan Carney – Appointed by Gov. Sean Parnell (R) in 2012
  • Dario Borghesan – Appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) in 2020

In 2021, there will be three supreme court vacancies in two of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. The vacancies are due to retirements. One vacancy—South Dakota—is in a state where a Republican governor appoints the replacement. The second vacancy—Colorado—is in a state where a Democratic governor appoints the replacement, and the vacancy in Alaska is in a state where a Republican governor appoints the replacement.

In 2020, there have been 23 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, one vacancy occurred when a justice was not retained, and 21 vacancies were caused by retirements.

Additional reading:

Georgia governor appoints LaGrua to state supreme court

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appointed Shawn LaGrua to the Georgia Supreme Court on December 1, 2020. LaGrua succeeded Justice Keith Blackwell, who retired on November 18, 2020. LaGrua is Kemp’s second nominee to the nine-member supreme court.

Under Georgia law, state supreme court justices are selected through nonpartisan elections. Justices serve six-year terms. Vacancies on the court are filled through the assisted appointment method. The governor chooses an appointee from a list of candidates submitted by the judicial nominating commission. 

Before her appointment to the state supreme court, LaGrua was a judge for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit of Georgia’s 5th Superior Court District. She joined the court in 2010. Before that, she was the inspector general for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

LaGrua earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Georgia in 1984, and received her J.D. from Georgia State University College of Law in 1987.

The Georgia Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort. As of December 10, 2020, eight judges on the court were appointed by a Republican governor, no judges were appointed by a Democratic governor, and one judge was elected.

In 2020, there have been 23 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, another occurred when a justice was not retained, and 21 vacancies were caused by retirements.

Additional reading: