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State ballot measures challenge judges' power

By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Ron Branson's crusade is launched daily from his garage in a nondescript house in California's San Fernando Valley.

Branson, his wife, Barbie, and attorney Gary Zerman, have waged a years-long, low-budget fight against judges and -- Branson says -- "a judicial system that just doesn't work."

Branson's weapons are his computer, where he publicizes his crusade through his Web site jail4judges.org, and the ballot box. His idea for a "judicial accountability" initiative will be voted on Tuesday in South Dakota.

Known as Amendment E, the measure would create a special grand jury to indict state judges if there are allegations they have violated their duties. It also would strip them of their immunity from civil lawsuits. Civil and criminal sanctions could follow.

It is believed to be the first proposal of its kind in the United States and is among several judicial initiatives on ballots around the country next week.

"It was just totally futile to go through the courts any more, and that's why I left that process and I decided to write this initiative and go directly to the people," Branson told CNN. "I'm a voice of a system gone out of control."

Much of the public frustration was galvanized in the case of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged woman in Florida who was the object of a legal tug-of-war between her husband and parents.

State and federal courts allowed her husband, Michael, to have her feeding tube removed, despite attempts by Florida officials -- prompted by her parents -- to take control of her medical care. Congress hastily passed a measure ordering the federal courts to intervene.

The political momentum from Branson's JAIL (Judicial Accountability Initiative Law) movement is dismissed by many in the legal community, and has caused concern over rhetorical attacks on judges and judicial independence.

Retired U.S. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor began a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal by mentioning Branson's group.

"It is tempting to dismiss this proposed amendment as merely an isolated bout of anti-judge angst," O'Connor wrote. "But while the JAIL 4 Judges initiative is unusually venomous, it is far from alone in expressing skepticism of the judiciary."

Ballot measures in other states

Other measures up for a vote November 7:

• In Colorado, Amendment 40 would subject judges to term limits. If approved, five of the seven justices on the state's Supreme Court would have to resign.

• Oregon would establish new voting districts for appellate judges, based on geography. The proposal is designed to "better reflect" the more conservative views of rural areas, compared with what supporters believe are more liberal judges from the Portland area.

• California's Proposition 90 would limit government's eminent domain power to seize private property for "public use."

• North Dakota would curb judicial authority in child custody cases.

Rebecca Kourlis, executive director of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver said frustration with the courts seem to be driving the movement.

Kourlis, until recently a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, said the legal community needs to do a better job of addressing public concerns and of explaining its role to the public.

"We should absolutely be expecting accountability," she told CNN. "They need to be accountable for being impartial, for not discriminating against people on the basis of race or socioeconomic status or even on the basis of who their lawyer is."

Kourlis' group recently released a report proposing wider use of "judicial performance evaluations," a nonpartisan tool already in use in 22 states.

Judges are rated according to factors such as caseload management, courtroom demeanor and adherence to laws. Judges are compared and evaluations can be used by voters in states where judges are elected or chosen by special panels created by the governor.

In Montana, the state Supreme Court found Constitutional Initiative 98 invalid. Under it, citizens could have used special elections to recall judges over any "dissatisfaction." The court said there was "pervasive fraud" in the signature-collection process.

Justice O'Connor sounds the alarm

O'Connor has tirelessly promoted the need for judicial independence. She co-hosted a recent conference with Justice Stephen Breyer on the topic. And the two of them spoke to CNN in an interview. (Full story)

The American Bar Association has distributed a DVD, "Countering the Critics," which it is screening at libraries, business clubs and churches.

All of this has had little sway on Branson.

The military veteran and minister is what is known in legal circles as a prolific "pro per" by filing numerous lawsuits over alleged wrongs done to him.

The U.S. Supreme Court says its records show at least eight appeals filed by him, all dismissed without a hearing. Branson says the number is closer to 14.

Branson's frustration with the legal system reached a boiling point after what he alleges was brutality from a traffic cop. His $13.6 million lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles went nowhere, he says.

So he and Zerman drafted a proposed judicial reform initiative in April 1995 that failed to get on their home state ballot. They created a Web site.

They found an ideological soul mate in Bill Stegmeier. A South Dakota farm-machine businessman, Stegmeier took Branson's idea and now spearheads the drive near Sioux Falls.

His Web site shows Stegmeier has spent about $165,000 of his own money to put the constitutional amendment on the November ballot and promote it.

E's supporters split

Stegmeier and his Amendment E supporters have split from Branson over a dispute over tactics.

Opponents of the measure say the amendment is too sweeping, and would threaten not only judges but ordinary citizens.

One such group is "No on E."

"Under Amendment E, almost all our families, neighbors and friends would be vulnerable if called to jury duty: they could be sued by disgruntled litigants and criminal defendants they convict," according to its Web site.

Such groups as school boards, zoning commissions and county commissions also could be affected because they receive some judicial immunity for their official duties, according to "No on E."

Stegmeier said only judges could be sued. He predicts victory.

Branson believes Nevada may be the next best chance to expand his initiative.

"What judgment you judge, you shall be judged," he said. As ordinary citizens, "we don't make laws, we're just called on to obey them, and I think that rule applies not only to us, but applies to judges."


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Ron Branson's crusade to make judges more accountable is rooted in a Los Angeles lawsuit that stalled.

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