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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Courts - Allegations in yet a third state of collusion between Justices and Legislators

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports today:

For what may be the first time in its 40-year history, the state Board on Judicial Standards has opened investigative files on all seven Minnesota Supreme Court justices, the result of a complaint that alleges that one or more of them may have had improper conversations with a legislator regarding Minnesota's marriage laws.

The board could dismiss the complaint or take disciplinary action against any or all of the justices.

It launched an investigation of Chief Justice Russell Anderson and Associate Justices Barry Anderson and Paul Anderson earlier this month on the basis of complaints filed by state Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, and lawyer Greg Wersal. In a follow-up letter, Emmer made clear that his complaint was not limited to those three.

After a preliminary investigation, the board has now opened files on Justices Lorie Gildea, Samuel Hanson, Helen Meyer and Alan Page.

David Paull, executive secretary of the board, said he could not comment on the specifics.

"We have opened investigative files," he said. "I can't say more than that."

Paull said that neither he nor his assistant, Deborah Flanagan, who has been with the board nearly since its inception, could recall a time when investigations had been opened on all sitting justices. * * *

The multiple investigations into the current court arose from the controversy over whether Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, had improper conversations with one or more justices.

In January, Johnson privately assured a group of pastors that he had been told by more than one Supreme Court justice that the court would not take up the issue of same-sex marriages. Such marriages are prohibited by law, but proponents of a constitutional ban have insisted that the court could at any time overturn the law.

Johnson was caught on tape saying that justices had told him they would not take up the case, in part because they had to stand for reelection.

Johnson later disavowed those statements, saying he had "embellished" the conversations. But even when he was called before a Senate ethics panel, his lawyer maintained that he did have casual conversations with justices about the law.

At the time, Chief Justice Anderson said that he had questioned his associates and that no such conversation had ever taken place. The Supreme Court operates under a strict code of judicial canons that prohibits justices from giving any indication of how they might rule on cases.

Johnson apologized to the Senate, and the ethics panel closed its investigation without resolving the basic conundrum of a chief justice who insisted that no such conversations had ever taken place and a senator who said they had.

Johnson said Friday that he had been informed by the board that investigations had begun but had no other contact.

The alleged conversations in Minnesota involved same-sex marriage legislation. Recall this April 23rd ILB entry where school funding deliberations between at least one Kansas justice and the General Assembly were alleged. And in late 2005, voters' outrage at possible Pennsylvania Supreme Court involvement with the General Assembly in a pay raise bill which raised both legislators' and judges' pay led to the failure of one justice to be retained by the voters.

The Kansas issue continues to appear daily in the local papers; here is a story from the April 26th Wichita Eagle that begins:

TOPEKA - A Senate panel raised the question Tuesday of whether a Supreme Court justice's discussion with two senators about school funding has tainted other members of the court.

One senator even asked whether the possible ethics violation could be grounds for dismissal of the seven-year-old school funding lawsuit.

The issues were raised as the full Legislature prepares to reconvene today to finish this year's work, including finding additional money for schools to satisfy a Supreme Court order.

Once the Legislature acts, the court will decide whether the plan is acceptable.

Justice Lawton Nuss, 53, of Salina, recused himself from the case last week after revealing he discussed school funding over lunch March 1 with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, and Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina.

At a hastily arranged meeting of the Senate Elections and Local Government Committee Tuesday, three senators questioned whether Nuss may have shared information about legislative deliberations with other justices--perhaps without them even knowing the source.

"I'm very concerned that there was a 50-day lag," said Sen. Kay O'Connor, R-Olathe. "If there was indeed sharing, do we have grounds for dismissal of the entire case?"

Chief Justice Kay McFarland has asked the Commission on Judicial Qualifications to investigate whether Nuss violated ethics rules for judges by discussing the case outside of court.

Ex parte communication -- discussing a pending court case outside of court proceedings -- is a violation of judicial conduct.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 29, 2006 03:08 PM
Posted to Courts in general