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Fair Courts: The Threat to Judicial Independence in Polarized Times

Thursday, October 3, 2019 -
2:00pm to 4:00pm PDT
Northern California Grantmakers
160 Spear Street, Suite 360 | San Francisco, CA 94105
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Fighting for Judicial Independence: Why Our Democracy Depends on Fair Courts

by Kathy Bonnifield, Program Officer at the Piper Fund 

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Judicial independence may be the most consequential — though least visible and discussed — long-term threat to a well-functioning American democracy. The partisan political climate in the U.S. has emboldened lawmakers to undermine the role of an independent judiciary by mounting unprecedented assaults at the state and federal levels.

We’ve heard the attacks: The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is “hostile” and “in chaos” for rulings on immigration and other issues; a U.S.-born Latino judge is labeled a “Mexican” and biased, and much more. 

“People uttering those [disparagements] are doing damage, short-term and long-term, to courts, to the rule of law,” California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the San Francisco Chronicle recently.

The damage has spread to at least 22 states which have considered legislation that would diminish the role or independence of the courts, according to the latest annual report from the Brennan Center. Fueled by big money, some of most brazen political attacks to influence state courts and twist them in their favor have surfaced in: 

  • Kansas, where state courts were defunded because of a ruling that the state legislature did not like;
  • Iowa, where the legislature retaliated against courts for specific rulings related to marriage equality and reproductive rights; and
  • Pennsylvania, where a bill was introduced to impeach five Democratic state supreme court justices who ruled that the state’s congressional map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

What’s at stake and what are the underlying causes? Can it happen here or has it already? How are groups across the country successfully pushing back against these assaults? How can philanthropy respond to ensure fair courts in California and other states?

Join us for a conversation with four leaders in the field to examine these issues and more. 

A reception, hosted by the Bay Area Democracy Funders, will immediately follow this program. Light food and drinks will be provided. 


Alicia Bannon, Managing Director, Brennan Center's Democracy Program

Alicia Bannon leads the Brannan Center’s fair courts work and directs research, advocacy, and litigation to promote a fair and impartial judicial system. She received her J.D. from Yale Law School, then clerked for the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor in the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the Honorable Kimba Wood in the Southern District of New York.



Kathy Bonnifield, Program Officer, Piper Fund

Kathy Bonnifield is program officer at the Piper Fund, which remains the country’s largest funder of state-level efforts to protect state courts. Through her fundraising and grantmaking activities, Kathy has worked on behalf of democratic institutions that secure and protect human rights: an independent judiciary operating beyond political interference and unencumbered access to fair elections.


Evan Gates, Executive Director, Kansas Values Institute 

Evan Gates directs the Kansas Values Institute (KVI), a policy and grassroots advocacy organization that is committed to educating and mobilizing Kansans to take action on a variety of topics that form the bedrock of the Kansas spirit, including protecting fair and impartial courts. 


Bertrall Ross, Chancellor's Professor, UC Berkeley School of Law 

Bertrall Ross teaches Legislation, Election Law and Constitutional Law. His research interests integrate political theory and empirical social science into discussions of legal doctrine, the institutional role of courts, and democratic design. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School and clerked for the Honorable Dorothy Nelson of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Honorable Myron Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama.




Bay Area Democracy Funders

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