New bill would increase disclosures regarding federal judicial travel

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced a new bill in the Senate, dubbed the Judicial Travel Accountability Act. (It has not yet received a number.) The bill would increase the financial disclosures put on federal judges regarding their travel. Bloomberg Law reports:

The Ethics in Government Act requires that judges’ disclosures include only the identity of the source and a brief description of reimbursements over $390. But judges don’t have to identify the dollar value of the reimbursement, and are exempted entirely from reporting any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality,” Whitehouse said in a news release.

The Judicial Travel Accountability Act would require “judicial officers’” financial disclosure statements to include the dollar amount of transportation, lodging, and meal expense reimbursements and gifts, as well as a detailed description of any meetings and events attended.

The bill calls for disclosures to be filed within 15 days of a trip and to be made available on a public website. The Supreme Court doesn’t post its financial disclosures online and they are made available only once a year

In an ordinary political cycle, it would be easier to see this is as a truly bipartisan effort to promote public confidence in the judiciary, akin perhaps to the regularly introduced “Sunshine in the Courtroom” Acts that seek to bring cameras and other transparency mechanisms into the courthouse. But this is not an ordinary political cycle, and it is hard to see this bill as anything other than a political ploy. Start with Senator Whitehouse, whose public treatment of the Supreme Court has become increasingly unhinged as of late, and who chose to begin his remarks with a focus on the Supreme Court even though its Justices represent less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire federal judiciary. Then there is the list of co-sponsors: 12 Democrats (including two current presidential hopefuls) and only one Republican. It’s not difficult to see this bill as primarily an effort to turn the courts into a political football once again.

It is a dangerous thing when politicians drag the court system into their partisan squabbles, and it is in my view a significant reason why the public increasingly sees the courts as political. But while the federal courts cannot stop Congress from introducing pointed legislation, it can render such legislative chicanery moot by adopting its own reporting practices. Put differently, if the court system itself required judges to report more fully their travel junkets, rather than waiting for Congress to mandate it, courts would reap the benefits of increased public confidence and would not find themselves dragged into the political muck. More on this point in a future post.

Supreme Court declines to hear West Virginia judicial impeachment case

Last year’s drama surrounding the impeachment of West Virginia’s Supreme Court seems to have come to its final chapter. The United States Supreme Court announced that it will not hear a challenge to the decision that halted the impeachment proceedings on separation-of-powers grounds.

Background on the impeachment of the West Virginia justices here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thai judge shoots himself in open court in defense of judicial independence

The global media is starting to report on a horrific incident that took place in a Thai courtroom at the beginning of October. Judge Khanakorn Pianchana had just announced the acquittal of five criminal defendants accused of murder when he grabbed a handgun and shot himself in the chest. In a 25-page document explaining his actions, Judge Khanakorn claimed that he had been under political pressure from the ruling authorities to convict the defendants of murder, even though the evidence against the defendants was insufficient and obtained primarily through improper interrogation and detention measures.

Judge Khanakorn survived the shooting and is now recuperating from his injuries. But the incident has shaken Thailand. One issue is why he would take such a drastic step as to attempt suicide in the courtroom. Khanakorn himself explained that he could not ethically convict the suspects without adequate proof, but he knew his career would be destroyed if he exonerated them. Others, however, have postulated that Judge Khanakorn is suffering from extreme depression and related issues that prompted him to try to take his own life.

In any event, it is a stunning incident, and a sad moment for the judge and for the administration of justice.

 

More facts emerge in judicial scuffle outside Indianapolis White Castle

Last May, two Indiana state judges were shot in a violent skirmish outside a Indianapolis-area White Castle restaurant. The judges were in town for a state judicial conference, and somehow found themselves on the wrong end of a loaded gun in the early morning hours just outside the restaurant. One judge, Bradley Jacobs, has since returned to work; the other, Andrew Adams, was indicted in the incident and is facing potential judicial discipline. (He is still recovering from his injuries.)

Now more facts have come out about that fateful night. Apparently four judges in all–Adams, Jacobs, Crawford Circuit Judge Sabrina Bell, and Clark County Magistrate William Dawkins–had been involved in a night of heavy drinking, and had made it to the White Castle only after first trying to go to a gentleman’s club and learning it was closed. Dawkins went into the restaurant, and then the scene in the parking lot turned ugly. From the Indianapolis Star:

Adams, Jacobs and Bell were standing outside the restaurant when Alfredo Vazquez and Brandon Kaiser drove past the trio in a blue SUV. Either Kaiser or Vazquez yelled something out the window that prompted Bell, court documents said, to give the middle finger to the men.

Vazquez, according to the charges, then parked his SUV. After he and Kaiser exited the vehicle, a verbal altercation ensued, court documents said. It then turned violent when Adams and Jacobs moved toward Vazquez and Kaiser, the panel said.

Adams and Vazquez both hit and kicked each other, according to court documents, while Jacobs and Kaiser mostly wrestled on the ground. “At one point, Judge Jacobs was on top of Kaiser and had him contained on the ground,” the charging documents said.

Vazquez then tried to get Jacobs off of Kaiser, the panel said. As Jacobs began to get up, Vazquez started fighting him, court documents said.

After Kaiser began to sit up, Adams kicked him in the back, the panel said. Kaiser then pulled out a gun and shot Adams in the stomach, according to court documents. The panel says Kaiser then “went over to Judge Jacobs and Vazquez and fired two more shots at Judge Jacobs in the chest.” Kaiser and Vazquez then allegedly fled the scene.

When medics arrived to treat Adams and Jacobs, Adams told them he drank “a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon” that night, the panel said, adding that Adams’ blood alcohol level was .213.

The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

In retrospect, the contretemps at summer’s end between the District Attorney’s office and a municipal court judge in Boston looks like a case study on the importance of effective accountability mechanisms in a judicial system. The dispute between prosecutors and Judge Richard Sinnott arose following the arrest of counter-demonstrators during the Boston Straight Pride Parade. Sinnott refused to accept an entry of nolle prosequi – the abandonment of a charge – in respect to certain defendants accused of disorderly conduct, on the ground that doing so would violate a Massachusetts statute that protects victims’ rights. The judge also ordered that a defense attorney arguing in favor of accepting the nolle prosequi be handcuffed and removed from the courtroom.

In addition to attracting a great deal of media attention, Judge Sinnott’s actions came in the wake of both a failed effort to amend the method of judicial selection in Massachusetts, and the release of the Boston Bar Association report, “Judicial Independence: Promoting Justice and Maintaining Democracy,” which defended the Commonwealth’s system of judicial selection through gubernatorial appointment with approval by the governor’s council. The responses to Sinnott’s denial of the Commonwealth’s entry of nolle prosequi and detention of a defendant’s lawyer illustrate ways in which real accountability is possible without abandoning judicial tenure. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the working group that drafted the Boston Bar Association report).

The Massachusetts legislature rejected a recent proposal to amend the constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years, an initiative aimed at ensuring judicial accountability, according to one of the sponsors, for those judges who “make poor legal decisions.” The Boston Bar Association report, on the other hand, highlighted the existing mechanisms through which judges can be held accountable within the existing system. These mechanisms include the appellate process, an enforceable code of judicial conduct, and the promotion of transparency. Each of these mechanisms has worked in the case of Judge Sinnott.

Continue reading “The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts”

Iowa courthouse break-ins were arranged by … the Iowa courts?

“This has been quite an odd case,” said one state senator.

Last month, two men were arrested for breaking into the courthouse in Dallas County, Iowa. The same men were charged with burglarizing the Polk County courthouse around the same time. Now it has come to light that they were hired by the state court administration in order to test courthouse security.

The men apparently broke into the Polk County courthouse after hours on one occasion, then had to break back in after they realized they had left some things behind. They were not caught until the third break-in in Dallas County. Last week, Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady admitted that they had been hired by the court system itself, which had proceeded without notifying law enforcement or any other governmental branch.

Chief Justice Cady apologized for the snafu, and stated that the court system and the security company had “differences in interpretations” of the security company’s contract.

On terrible judicial optics

Over the weekend, Texas state judge Sarah Eckhardt was forced to apologize after a reporter caught her publicly mocking the disability of the state’s governor, Greg Abbott. Eckhardt made her comment while participating on a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. The Federalist reports:

At a panel on leftist activism in cities, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was railing against the Texas legislature, complaining about how the state is constantly thwarting municipal policy. The Republicans running state government, she said, just want to stop whatever good things the cities are doing—whether it’s plastic bag bans, fracking bans, even local tree ordinances!

Then she said, “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd laughed.

As all Texans know, Abbott was paralyzed from the waist down at age 26 when a tree fell on him while he was jogging on a windy day in Houston in 1984. He has used a wheelchair ever since.

Eckhardt’s comment was incredibly crude, even by our low modern standards, and she was right to apologize. But what was she doing at the Tribune Festival in the first place? It is an environment steeped in rough-and-tumble politics: this year’s speakers included Nancy Pelosi, Ted Cruz, Susan Rice, Julian Castro, and Anthony Scaramucci, among others. The panel on which Judge Eckhardt participated was entitled “Civic Enragement” and its description read: “How progressive politics are turning citizens into warriors and cities into battlegrounds.” Her co-panelists were all politicians; the moderator, a columnist for Vox.

This is no place for a judge to be. Of course, judges have their own political leanings, and in Texas they wear their party affiliations on their sleeves. But what message does it send to the public when a judge so plainly aligns herself with partisan politics and partisan ideology? How could anyone who openly disagrees with her politics ever hope to get a fair hearing in her courtroom? Even leaving aside her sophomoric joke about the governor, Judge Eckhardt has permanently stained any chance to build a reputation as an impartial jurist.

Judges have to make sacrifices when they don the robe, including avoiding activities that they might otherwise enjoy. This is not always fair, but it is necessary, as this sorry episode makes clear.