Why the Judicial Conference is asking for more judges

Last week, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress add 73 permanent judgeships around the country. These are new judicial positions which would have to be filled, above and beyond the more than 120 existing federal judicial vacancies nationwide.

Political commentators have predictably seen this request through partisan lenses, noting (for example) that if all the requested judgeships were added and filled in short order, President Trump could “flip” the ideological composition of the Ninth Circuit. Given the current ugliness in Washington over proposals to pack the Supreme Court for partisan gain, it’s not entirely surprising that some would see the Judicial Conference’s request for more judges as having similarly political dimensions.

But the Conference must make its recommendation to Congress every two years, and that recommendation is based on hard evidence concerning the workload of the courts. Law360 has a good breakdown of the statistics behind the request, noting that nearly a third of the federal district courts have per-judge workloads that far exceed the recommended level.

It’s not clear if and when Congress will act on the request, although I certainly would not hold my breath on anything happening soon. In the meantime, the federal court system will continue to rely on internal strategies to manage its workload, including the use of senior judges and visiting judges in courts with otherwise crushing dockets.

Growing dockets, many vacancies in the federal courts

I have a new op-ed in The Hill, noting the unfortunate conflation of growth in federal case filing, the mass of ongoing judicial vacancies, and ugly partisanship in the judicial confirmation process. Key grafs:

These partisan inquisitions are embarrassing and wholly unnecessary. The vast majority of federal cases do not raise political questions. Whether a contract was breached or a patent infringed is neither a matter of liberal or conservative ideology nor one of broad significance. By contrast, the ongoing vacancies crisis in the courts is a matter of national concern. For private litigants, a shortage of judges means longer waits for trials and orders, and increased financial and emotional cost on clients resulting from the delays. For the general public, fewer judges means a justice system that is less efficient, less transparent, and even less trustworthy.

Just imagine if other important civic institutions such as police and fire services, churches and synagogues, and schools and hospitals had to rely entirely on politicians to meet their staffing needs. Imagine if the career of a promising doctor, teacher, or firefighter depended not on her relevant skills and experience, but whether she belonged to the right kind of civic organization or took the wrong stand on an issue in college. What kind of applicants would seek those jobs and run that gauntlet? What quality of employee would it ultimately produce? How long could people endure all the resulting delays and inefficiencies before it became too unbearable?

Please read the whole thing!

Tweeting judges: a cautionary tale

A little over a year ago, I took a close look at the phenomenon of judges using Twitter. After examining the professional and ethical responsibilities of the judiciary, I concluded that “judges should not be afraid of using Twitter, as long as they employ it appropriately and with discretion.”

That conclusion still holds, and most judges who are regular Twitter users find a way to make it work without compromising their judicial roles.  But Twitter is still a dangerous medium, as Kansas judge Jeffry Jack is learning this week. Judge Jack, currently a Labette County trial judge, has been nominated by Governor Laura Kelly to the state’s Court of Appeals. But his nomination has run into strong opposition from state lawmakers, after they discovered a number of profane and inflammatory tweets from his account, many of which were directed to President Trump and other prominent conservatives.

To be sure, some Republican lawmakers were already predisposed to vote against Jack’s nomination, based on purely partisan factors such as his apparent support for gun control and the Affordable Care Act. But even Democratic legislators were taken aback by the ferocity and crudeness of Jack’s tweets:

Sen. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat who attended a Friday news conference where Kelly nominated Jack, said some of the tweets do not demonstrate a proper judicial temperament.

“If these are genuine, I find them to be deeply troubling coming from a sitting judge,” Miller said.

Exactly. Judges, like all people, are entitled to their political views, and there is nothing wrong with holding those views very strongly. But the judiciary depends on its members displaying an even-handed temperament and maintaining a high level of professional behavior even in their personal lives. Judge Jack’s tweets do not display that temperament, and they raise questions not only about his fitness for an appellate court position, but also for maintaining his current trial job.

Yesterday, Governor Kelly withdrew Jack’s nomination. But don’t be surprised if his tweets become an issue if seeks to retain his trial seat when his current term ends in 2020.

This posted was edited on March 20 to correct the spelling of Judge Jack’s name.

The Alien Terrorist Removal Court? What’s that?

The Alien Terrorist Removal Court (ATRC) is a special federal court, created by Congress in 1996 to review applications by the government for the removal of non-citizens who are suspected of being terrorists. It is populated by five federal district judges, who hold their position on that court in addition to their regular appointments.

Never heard of it? That’s not surprising, since the court has never met in its 23 years of existence. And that’s because the government itself has never once applied to the court to remove a resident alien suspected of terrorism. The judges on the court don’t even know where they would meet if an application was filed, since no specific courthouse has been designated for their deliberations.

Why has the court never been called into order? For one thing, its powers and jurisdiction are arguably unconstitutional:

“I honestly don’t know why it has not decided any cases, but there has been speculation that concerns about its constitutionality may have played a part,” said Robert F. Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia who is familiar with the court.

Turner, a national security expert, said when the government is dealing with permanent resident aliens, legitimate constitutional issues have been raised. He said he believes constitutional complaints concern secret evidence, like sensitive intelligence sources and methods that identified the individual as a terrorist, versus the Sixth Amendment’s right to see evidence and confront witnesses.

The Bristol Herald Courier has a terrific piece explaining the origins, administration, and constitutional challenges facing of one of the least-known courts in the country. Well worth the read!

Federal court filings increased by seven percent last year

That’s one immediate and important takeaway from the Annual Report of the Director of the U.S. Courts, published today. I shall have more to say about this once I have digested it — but business appears to be booming.

Conference notes that legal professionals are at high risk for mental health issues

I have chronicled several recent stories discussing the mental health issues faced by lawyers and judges. It is no secret that the practice of law can be a stressful job, featuring (as it does) time pressure, a sometimes-unhealthy desire for excellence at all costs, and fact patterns that often reveal humanity at its worst.

There are resources for lawyers and judges to help with some of the consequences of these pressures–be they substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or countless other mental health concerns. And increasingly, those who have experienced these conditions are finding the courage to speak about it publicly. The Daily Business Review has a good story on a recent conference that brought these issues out into the open.

Like first responders, medical professionals, and social workers, lawyers and judges often find themselves on the front lines of society’s most difficult and troubling moments. There is no shame in seeking help to relieve some of the mental burden that they carry home from those encounters.

A call for better ethics training for New York’s town and village justices

The practices of New York State’s “village justices” have long been the subject of deep concern. These judges are empowered to hear a variety of low-stakes cases at the local level. But most lack any legal training, resulting in poor practices, questionable procedures, and misapplications of the law.

Perhaps this type of local magistrate made sense in the nineteenth century, when it was necessary to have a judicial figure in each town or village to address on-the-spot legal disputes. But the continued practice raises a variety of significant, ongoing ethics concerns.

In 2006, the New York Times published an expose on the questionable practices of village justices, finding examples of judicial intimidation, open racism, jailing defendants capriciously and without bail, and willful ignorance of applicable law.

Not much happened in response. But this week, the issue roared back once again. New York State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct published a report emphasizing (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the most frequent and common ethical lapses in the state judiciary are committed by town and village justices who lack legal training. Examples of such lapses include posting case details on social media, and failing to create a record of any court proceedings for eight years.

There are currently no plans to change the system. No surprise there, either.