The Week in Politics: Scalia Battle Mirrors State Court Fights, Ferguson Makes History and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | February 26, 2016
The recent death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has sparked political controversy that's similar to judicial battles at the state level. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.

Scalia Battle Mirrors State Supreme Court Fights

Total spending on Arkansas Supreme Court elections that take place next Tuesday has already broken state records. More than $1 million has been spent on campaign ads -- mostly from outside conservative groups rather than the candidates themselves.

The fact that judicial elections are becoming more contentious and expensive is nothing new. But legislators in a number of states are trying to change the rules for court races to give their party an advantage.

"There's a lot of focus on the politics of the [Antonin] Scalia replacement process, but it's exactly what we've been seeing at the state level for years," said Laurie Kinney, communications director for Justice at Stake, a judicial election watchdog group.

A lot of the action is happening in Southern states, where Republicans have taken over legislatures in recent years but the judiciary has been slower to flip.

Last week, the Georgia House passed a bill that would expand the state Supreme Court by two seats. Along with expected retirements, creation of the new slots would let GOP Gov. Nathan Deal appoint a majority of justices before his term is up in 2018. Arizona is also considering a court expansion proposal -- its third such effort in the past five years.

In North Carolina, a three-judge panel last week struck down a 2015 law that created a system of retention elections for state Supreme Court justices. Under the law, incumbent justices would no longer face challengers, so voters would only have two options when they came up for re-election: retain them or toss them out. The new law was considered a move to protect current justices and thus preserve the court's current 4-3 conservative majority.

"A mandatory retirement age, expansion of the number of seats -- things like these can have a substantial and lasting impact on the courts but don't get as much attention as high-spending races," said Kinney.

Conservative Oklahoma legislators have called for impeachment of judges in response to recent rulings related to religious monuments, tort reform and the death penalty. In Kansas -- where the state Supreme Court recently angered legislators by ordering them to increase school funding -- the state Senate is considering a bill to let lawmakers impeach judges for "attempting to usurp the power of the legislative or executive branch."

With five of Kansas' seven justices facing retention elections this fall, judicial politics will be highly contentious. Kansas is not alone. Other states facing potentially expensive races this year include Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin.

In all these races, voters will be inundated with negative ads about candidates who otherwise don't receive much media coverage and aren't well known. Some may have strong ideological leanings or be backed by groups that do, but the candidates don't admit it.

That may change. Last week, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that judicial candidates can identify as Democratic or Republican. Now the question is whether other states will embrace party labels for judicial candidates.

Crime and Punishment

Two high-profile criminal cases involving politicians reached different conclusions this week.

The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals threw out the charges against former GOP Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday. Perry had been accused in 2014 of coercion and misuse of office for threatening to veto some state funding for the Democratic district attorney of Travis County.

Many observers saw the indictment as an attempt to criminalize ordinary politics. "The charges themselves were phony," wrote Michael A. Lindenberger in an editorial for The Dallas Morning News. "The charges should never have been put to a grand jury in the first place."

Also on Wednesday, former California state Sen. Leland Yee was sentenced to five years in prison. The Democrat pleaded guilty last year to corruption charges related to performing favors in exchange for campaign cash when he was running for secretary of state. Yee was charged in 2014, a year when several Democratic legislators in the state ran into legal trouble.

In Ohio, 18-year-old Izaha Akins has been charged with fraud for impersonating a state senator. Akins spoke to a social studies class at a high school in Sycamore, Ohio, having convinced the school he'd been appointed to replace GOP state Sen. David Burke. Akins told the Toledo Blade he pulled the stunt to show how bad school security is. "I was duping to prove a point that these kinds of things can happen," he said. "They could easily have Googled me and they didn't."

Around the Country

Ferguson Makes History: For the first time, the majority of the Ferguson, Mo., City Council is made up of African-Americans. Laverne Mitchom was sworn in Tuesday to replace a councilmember who died last month. The St. Louis suburb, which attracted national attention after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, is 70 percent black. Before two black members were elected to the six-member city council last April, only one African-American served on it.

Call It a Comeback: In Texas, a number of politicians are hoping to stage a comeback in legislative primaries on Tuesday. No fewer than nine former lawmakers are looking to reclaim their old seats.

Ballot Setback: In California, a judge ruled that state Attorney General Kamala Harris should not have let Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown substantially amend a measure he intended to put on the California ballot. The decision is a blow to Brown's hopes of making some nonviolent offenders eligible for early parole. If appeals are unsuccessful, Brown won't have time to get the measure on the November ballot.

Sitting This Election Out: Supporters of another proposed California ballot measure announced Wednesday that they'll wait to try again another year. The initiative would have increased taxes on properties worth more than $3 million to raise an estimated $7.7 billion for antipoverty and children's programs. "The 2016 ballot has become too crowded with too many revenue-raising measures on it," said Conway Collis, a former member of the state Board of Equalization, in a statement. "Consequently, it makes more sense to qualify early for a later ballot."

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.