A renewed effort to create regional judicial elections in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania state senator Ryan Aument reintroduced legislation this week to elect the state’s appellate judges by region. The goal is to assure fairness of geographic representation within the court system:

Aument noted that a cursory review of Pennsylvania’s Superior Court and Commonwealth Court judge compliment in 2018 when this proposal was first developed shows that more than half of all the members of those courts were from only two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, which only represent 21% of the state’s population.

He also pointed out that five of the seven Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices, or over two-thirds of the justices, were from Allegheny or Philadelphia counties, leaving 79% of the state’s population unrepresented on Pennsylvania’s highest court.

I understand the goal of the bill, but it misses the larger point that Pennsylvania’s judicial election structure itself is highly flawed. As I noted earlier this year, “geographic representation could be achieved much more fairly and efficiently through a commission-based appointment system than through the messy (and litigation-begging) process of drawing election districts in the legislature.”

More on California’s relaxed judicial ethics rules

I have a new post up at the IAALS blog that looks more deeply at the changes to California’s Code of Judicial Ethics, which permit judges to comment on pending cases in the context of a recall or retention election. Here’s a taste:

The amended rule allows judges who are under electoral attack to explain and contextualize their decisions to the voters directly. This is especially important for decisions rendered orally from the bench, which—like the rulings that ultimately felled Judges Corey and Persky—were not supplemented with a written account of the judge’s thought process. If a controversial decision was mandated or constrained by existing law, or by formal rules of evidence or procedure, the judge is now free to explain those circumstances to the public. A nuanced legal explanation will still struggle to compete for voter attention in comparison to a simple hashtag, but at least a judge will have some opportunity to advance his or her position directly.

At the same time, by inviting judicial comment on pending cases, the new rule places the overall integrity of the judiciary at greater risk. Traditional rules of judicial conduct prohibit judges from even approaching behavior that might be considered inappropriate for a neutral jurist. Judges, for example, are directed to avoid the appearance of impropriety, to disqualify themselves if there is anything above a de minimis personal interest in the outcome of a case, and to conduct extra-judicial activities so as to “minimize the risk of conflict with obligations of judicial office.” And, of course, judges are traditionally barred from discussing a pending case, lest they compromise the fairness of the proceeding. By consistently erring on the side of impartiality, judicial conduct rules avoid close calls and send a message that judicial integrity is of the utmost importance. The new rule blurs the line between appropriate and inappropriate judicial speech, and may have long-term erosive effects on public faith in the judiciary.

Please read the whole thing!

Making sense of the recent Congressional testimony on courts and technology

On June 25, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing entitled Federal Courts During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Best Practices, Opportunities for Innovation, and Lessons for the Future. The hearings featured testimony (via Zoom, of course) from federal district judge David Campbell, Michigan Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, former federal district judge (and current Executive Director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute), and Melissa Wasser of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The testimony was interesting, as was the choice of witnesses. The entire hearing (all 102 minutes of it) can be found directly below, with some thoughts on what transpired to follow.

Continue reading “Making sense of the recent Congressional testimony on courts and technology”

The challenge of reopening courts

A number of recent news stories have emphasized the reluctance of many white-collar workers to go back to the office, even when their places of business are authorized to reopen. Extensive safety precautions, combined with the ability of many employees to work effectively from home, has even led some to proclaim the death of the modern office.

As admirable a job as courts have done with videoconferencing during the coronavirus pandemic, they do not have the same luxury of transitioning everyone to a long-term work-from-home arrangement. And so courts are reopening around the country. And they are finding difficult challenges in front of them. Safety and social distancing guidelines means that there is less space for observers and unsettled questions about enforcement of safety norms. Returning judges and attorneys are also facing heavily backlogged dockets and the further postponement of trials and hearings. It will require patience and creativity to get things back on an even keel.

An interesting overview of the Japanese judiciary

I am no expert in the Japanese legal system, but I was intrigued by this article (in translation, from Nippon.com) which sets out some of the history and mechanics of the country’s judicial system. In particular, I was struck by how strongly the modern judiciary has been influenced by American occupation after World War II, both positively (adoption of the political question doctrine, overt commitment to judicial independence) and less positively (e.g., direct American interference in high profile cases in the immediate postwar years). I was similarly struck by the Japan’s embrace of bureaucratic approach to judging that is common in civil law systems across Europe and Latin America.

A good, relatively short read.

 

California approves plan to allow judges to comment on their own (and others’) decisions

The California Supreme Court has approved a change to its Code of Judicial Ethics, which would allow state judges to publicly comment on pending proceedings, including their own decisions and decisions of their colleagues. The most important change is to Canon 3B(9) and associated comments. The amended Canon now reads, in pertinent part:

In connection with a judicial election or recall campaign, this canon does not prohibit any judge from making a public comment about a pending proceeding, provided (a) the comment would not reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of the proceeding, and (b) the comment is about the procedural, factual, or legal basis of a decision about which a judge has been criticized during the election or recall campaign.

These changes have been in the works for some time, a reaction to the ugly 2018 campaign to recall state judge Aaron Persky. The sentiment is understandable, given that judges who produce unpopular decisions are sitting ducks in an election when they cannot even respond to unfair or oversimplified attacks by their antagonists. Permitting judges to at least clarify the context of their decisions, or to comment on the overall qualifications of a fellow judge whose career is being reduced to a single decision, may prevent voters from removing a judge rashly.

But there is still reason to be worried about whether this change will work for the better. Now that judges are permitted to comment on pending proceedings, they have less of an excuse to not comment when pressed by the media or an election opponent. Some judges might feel pressure to comment even when they do not want to do so. Others might choose not to comment and find themselves under pressure to justify that decision. Put differently, in some ways the original canon was cleaner because judges had no choice but to remain silent. Now they have more freedom, and that can be a blessing and a curse.

The new rules go into effect July 1. It will be a development worth watching.

 

Courthouses continue to open, carefully

As communities across the United States slowly reopen for business, courthouses are following suit. Extensive precautions and protocols are in place. I have periodically tracked how some court systems have begun their reopening processes, and here is one more: New Mexico resumes jury trials with masks, plexiglass, and cameras.

If these stories seem repetitive, it is only because I am trying to capture a taste of a very unusual time in our history. Many of the lessons to be drawn from this experience will only emerge after a period of reflection and analysis.

 

Israeli Supreme Court Justice receives death threat

Israeli Supreme Court Justice Anat Baron has been assigned additional security detail after receiving a death threat in the mail over the weekend. The letter apparently made veiled reference to Justice Baron’s son, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2003.

This is grotesque and illegal behavior, and was immediately condemned by Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu himself has been accused of inciting this type of behavior, given his ongoing verbal attacks on the judiciary as he fights for his political life. The parallels to President Trump’s assaults on American judges are hard to ignore.

To be clear, neither Netanyahu nor Trump can possibly be said to wish physical harm to judges with whom they disagree. But rhetoric matters, and when politicians of any stripe wage war on the judiciary as part of their partisan battle plan, they do bear some responsibility for the collateral damage, both to judges’ reputations or (worse) to their physical well-being.

Federal courts issue guidance for reopening, including conducting jury trials

The federal courts’ COVID-19 Judicial Task Force released a detailed report on Wednesday, containing recommendations for conducting jury trials and convening grand juries during the coronavirus pandemic. This Bloomberg Law piece provides a bit of additional context.

The report relies on guidance from the Center for Disease Control, and acknowledges that district courts may be ready to open, and open more fully, at different times during the next few weeks. It is a careful, detailed, and thoughtful report. It also illustrates the complex issues that virtually every organization — public or private — is facing right now regarding reopening: cleaning, social distancing, virus screening, transparency, scheduling, travel safety, and so on. Ask any school administrator, business owner, local bureaucrat, or public official, and you’ll hear about the same predictive difficulties.

The bottom line: courts are navigating this crisis just like the rest of us. Preparation is essential, but only time will provide real clarity.

 

A reverse judicial cascade!

I have written before about judicial nomination cascades: situations in which a sitting judge is appointed to another court, leaving another vacancy on the judge’s original court. Usually, cascades move in a single direction: trial judges are appointed to appellate courts, or intermediate appellate judges to courts of last resort.

But this week, Massachusetts initiated a rare reverse judicial cascade when Justice Edward McDonough, Jr., who is currently on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, was nominated for a seat on the Massachusetts Superior Court, which is the state’s general jurisdiction trial court. Judge McDonough previously served on the Superior Court from 2013 to 2017.

Judge McDonough’s long career as a trial lawyer suggests a high level of comfort with the trial bench, and it is inspiring to see judges who prefer the hurly-burly of the trial courts over the more sanitized settings of the appeals court. Assuming the appointment is successful, it will be interesting to see who Governor Charlie Baker nominates for the vacancy created on the Appeals Court.