Judicial Independence: 2020 Highlights

Judicial Independence: 2020 Highlights - Proteus Fund

We ended 2020 with a reminder of the importance of independent state courts, as case after case seeking to invalidate the Presidential election results was heard—and rejected—by state supreme courts. The impact of Piper’s grantees in ensuring that these courts remained impartial, and not subject to political winds, was critical in protecting our democracy.

This year, state courts will play an important role in redistricting; 30 states have some form of constitutional requirement that elections be “free”—18 of these states require that elections be either “equal” or “open” in addition to being free. These can been the basis for redistricting rulings, and the US Supreme Court abdicated federal judiciary responsibility for partisan gerrymandering cases in Rucho v. Common Cause. Thus, we expect more cases to be filed solely in state courts.

As noted in our 2019 blog post, Protecting Our State Courts to Fight Gerrymandering, we expect efforts to either pressure judges or attack them for unpopular redistricting rulings. This is already underway in Pennsylvania, where an effort to change the Pennsylvania Constitution to create judicial districts for the state supreme court will likely be on the ballot as early as May 2021. If successful, some state supreme court justices will be placed in the same district, causing them to compete against each other in an election. Other districts will be open, allowing special interest groups to pour money into those contests. This could all happen before the state redistricts other branches of government. Piper’s Pennsylvania grantees have all been actively working to educate the public on the nature of these deceptive tactics, and the long-term loss of both resources and equitable justice to their communities that could result if these tactics succeed.

"We must protect our courts" overlaid on PA map

The assault on the Pennsylvania’s courts is not an exception: the Brennan Center reported that “In 2020, legislators in at least 17 states considered at least 42 bills to diminish the role or independence of state courts”, including numerous bills to hyper-politicize judicial selection processes, restrict judicial control of their own resources, allow legislative overrides of judicial decisions, and cherry-picking of specific judges to hear cases.

In addition to grantmaking, Piper continues to build infrastructure for the field.  We continue to lead the Fair Courts Working Group, a network of national organizations, to monitor proposed bills and rhetoric to ensure that state-based groups have the needed resources to respond to proposed measures. To enhance this effort in 2020, Piper contracted Goodwin Simon Strategic Research to conduct polling and message testing in Iowa, Kansas, and Alaska—where methods of selecting judges have been under attack by the religious right which often points towards abortion rights rulings as reasons to change the system. Piper also contracted with Bending the Arc Strategies to lead three five-hour long virtual workshops for advocates in ten states to provide support for groups to create long-term strategic plans. These plans will both prepare groups for long-term success and help Piper better understand the resources needed to pivot towards positive reforms.

Piper is also expanding our work to begin focusing on ties between campaign donations and a racist criminal justice system. In response to overwhelming evidence of structural racism in policing and criminal justice nationwide, there have been appeals. Piper has been in conversations with Washington State Justice Yu—the first Asian, the first Latina, and the first member of the LGBTQ community to serve on the Washington Supreme Court—who is actively working on moving towards reform within her state. Piper’s grantees in Texas and Louisiana have been researching connections between judicial campaign contributions and how companies that make them are rewarded during sentencing, and how they also seek to block progressive reforms (specifically in bail bonds) that threaten their bottom line. 

While challenges will remain numerous, Piper is honored to support its grantees in the struggle to defend and strengthen judicial independence across the country, and is poised to continue to support the field as it evolves to confront new challenges and expand both equity and justice in the years ahead.