In Memoriam: Stephen Susman

This morning brought the sad news that renowned trial lawyer Stephen Susman has passed away from the novel coronavirus. He was 79.

Steve was widely known for his remarkable trial skills, and as a founder of the Houston litigation firm Susman Godfrey. But his professional energy and interests extended far beyond the courtroom. He was deeply active in efforts to improve the civil justice system and to preserve the civil jury trial. A few years ago, he founded the Civil Jury Project at NYU Law School for that express purpose, bringing together lawyers, judges, jurors, and scholars to study and advocate for the importance of civil juries.

I first met Steve about ten years ago, at the Duke Conference of the federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules. As judges and lawyers struggled to determine the best way to rein in discovery costs, Steve pointed out how much can be done when opposing counsel simply act like adults and professionals. As proof, he submitted a two-page checklist of discovery agreements that he claimed to use in every case. It was a straightforward and sensible list, agreed to by counsel in advance, covering issues like the order of depositions and the labeling of exhibits — the type of things that would naturally keep discovery within reasonable limits and avoid pointless cost to the client. My favorite item remains the very first on the list:

As to any discovery dispute, the lead lawyers will try to resolve [it] by phone and no one will write letters to the other, including letters attached as pdf’s to emails and phone calls.

The entire checklist was so simple, and yet so brilliant, that I immediately sought permission to share it with my law students. (Steve graciously granted that permission in short order.) I still assign the checklist to my law students as a paradigm example of how a lawyer can simultaneously be a zealous advocate of his client and a responsible officer of the court.

About three years ago, Steve asked me to join the Civil Jury Project as an academic advisor, an invitation for which I was both honored and grateful. It was a pleasure to see him in action, with his relentless energy and good cheer, as he brought together jurors and lawyers at “jury improvement luncheons” across the country, and held programs for scholars to share their insights into the jury system.

Our thoughts are with Steve’s family today. His passing is a profound loss for the entire legal community.

 

 

Coming soon to your local fairground: jury trials?

Court administrators have had to act nimbly during the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic, in order to balance public safety with the requirements of due process. Now, some county courts in Oregon are considering yet another creative solution: holding jury trials at local fairgrounds in order to meet the requirements of social distancing.

The fairgrounds are already owned by the respective counties where trials might be held. They are easy to get to, have ample parking, and offer wide-open and largely unused buildings, making them an attractive option for courts. Still, there are many logistics that have yet to be worked out:

So far in Deschutes County, court officials have developed lists of what will be needed at the fairgrounds. On the to-do list is to look at the costs of renting tents and other furnishings like chairs, tables, maybe a riser to put a bench up on.

Heating, air conditioning and restrooms will be needed to keep people comfortable, because jurors need to be focused only on listening to the evidence, Ashby said. Secure and private rooms are needed for lawyers to meet with clients and jurors and judges to deliberate. Boxes and boxes of computer and recording equipment must be relocated and tied in with the county IT system and the fairgrounds PA system. Security is another primary concern.

“Our number one priority is making the courthouse as safe as humanly possible,” Ashby said. “Competing with that are statutory timelines, which require us to try cases, the most pressing of which are in-custody criminal defendants.”

Plans like this are born of necessity, but it will be fascinating to see what courts learn from the experience, and how some of these options might influence court administration after the pandemic subsides.

The cravenness of Democratic “Court reform” proposals

The Supreme Court is doing its job and winning public support. Some Democrats are despondent.

Last week, The Hill published an op-ed by by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, lamenting the Supreme Court’s recent decisions on abortion rights, immigration, and workplace discrimination. Each of these cases resulted in what might be termed a liberal victory, in the sense that the outcome was in line with prevailing left-wing views in the United States. One might think of this as a cause for celebration among the Democratic establishment. But not for Mellman, who with a tinge of sadness concluded that “by refusing to inflame passions further, [Chief] Justice Roberts may stem the tide and accomplish the coveted goal of his GOP critics — preserving the Court’s current conservative majority.”

A second op-ed, also published in The Hill (on the same day, in fact!) took a more academic tone but made essentially the same point as Mellman. Law professors Kent Greenfield and Adam Winkler argued that the Chief Justice’s “moves to the middle will likely assist conservatives in the long run by dooming plans by Democrats the pack the Supreme Court with justices.” 

Both articles expose the long game the Democrats have been playing with the Supreme Court since the failed Merrick Garland nomination in 2016. It is a game to punish Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump by radically restructuring the Court itself. And it is a game that has been undermined by the Court’s own decency and independence.
Continue reading “The cravenness of Democratic “Court reform” proposals”

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.