Ballots to Limit Judges' Power

Ron Branson, a citizen activist who has unsuccessfully appealed several of his grievances to the U.S. Supreme Court, has finally grabbed the attention of judges from some of the highest courts in the country.

It is Branson who is credited with the idea for an initiative known as "Jail 4 Judges," which will appear on South Dakota's ballot on Nov. 7. The amendment, which received almost 40,000 signatures, would strip judges, and other officials, of their immunity from lawsuits that stem from their official actions. Disgruntled litigants would be able to sue officials currently covered under judicial immunity.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has called the initiative "unusually venomous" and wrote that criticism of judges might "cross over into intimidation."

The amendment, officially called Amendment E, reads in part that a special grand jury could "expose" decision makers with "fines and jail" for making decisions that "break rules defined by special grand jurors." Judges could be stripped of insurance coverage and up to half of their retirement benefits.

Branson, who lives in California, targeted South Dakota because the state has a relatively low threshold for the number of signatures required for something to get on the ballot. On his Web site, Jail4judges.org, he calls for a nationwide campaign to "restore the Constitution and the laws to this country."

Although most believe it will fail, the amendment has generated much talk and enthusiasm.

Jesse Rutledge, spokesman for the group Justice at Stake, said, " "Proponents of Amendment E have tapped into a widespread feeling, right or wrong, that judges are not sufficiently accountable. But this measure would make South Dakota judges accountable to the whims of a handful citizens, many with an ax to grind, and that's the wrong sort of accountability."

South Dakota is not the only state that has ballot initiatives aimed at limiting the power of judges.

In Colorado, voters will be asked to weigh in on whether there should be term limits for judges. In Montana, there is an effort to have judges recalled for any reason, including electoral dissatisfaction. In Oregon, a measure requires Oregon supreme court and court of appeals judges to be elected by district rather than state.

According to William E. Raftery, of the National Center for State Courts, "this is the be biggest year so far for amendments or initiatives that specifically target judges."

Last month in Washington, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer co-chaired a conference on fair and independent courts. Judges participated from around the country. Debate ensued on whether attacks on the judiciary, which have existed throughout history, have escalated.

Federal Judge William Pryor has written that contemporary criticism is "relatively mild" compared to attacks during more tumultuous times.

But in South Dakota, opponents of "Jail 4 Judges" hope to send a clear signal on Election Day that this is one initiative that went too far.

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