When senior status becomes political

Josh Blackman has some interesting comments on two federal appellate judges — one a Reagan appointee, the other a Clinton appointee —  who  rescinded their decisions to take senior status after learning, to their dissatisfaction, the identity of the nominees who would replace them. (Note the excellent reporting by David Lat.)

There is something deeply unseemly about this. Two rescissions do not necessarily represent a trend, but as Professor Blackman points out, conditioning senior status on the appointment of a chosen successor would effectively give judges a veto power over presidential nominations. This poses obvious problems for both the general balance of power in the federal government and our Constitutional fabric. 

The question is what to do about it. I see nothing in the governing statute that expressly forbids this type of gamesmanship. But there are certainly some opportunities for soft power responses. For one thing, the President need not kowtow to a judge’s demand for a specific nominee; if President Biden and his successors simply refuse to allow sitting judges to influence the nomination process, the likelihood of particularized conditional declarations of senior status will probably just dry up. 

It’s also possible for powers within the federal court system to respond. Neither the Chief Justice nor the Judicial Conference has coercive power to prevent judges from declaring conditional senior status. But they do have other forms of influence. It is hard to believe that a call from the Chief Justice, or a sternly worded communique from one’s peers about preserving the legitimacy and apolitical culture of the judiciary, wouldn’t make a difference to many on the bench.

To be sure, the federal court system needs judges to take senior status periodically. It is an important means of bringing in new blood and coping with voluminous dockets (since senior judges do not count against each district and circuit’s statutory allocation of active judges). But the internal culture also has to be preserved, and slowing some judges from taking senior status in order to maintain legitimacy is surely the right call.

 

A roundup of interesting state court developments

Several interesting and important developments have taken place in state courts this past week. Among them:

  • The Chief Judge of the Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court announced that the court has a backlog of 3,000 cases that must be resolved by 2023. Nearly 90 percent of those cases are criminal matters. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to 89 percent of all court hearings being held remotely. 
  • New Hampshire has a new state court administrator. Dianne Martin was most recently the Chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and has worked in and with the state colurt system for nearly twenty years.
  • And Idaho’s state court administrator has been named in a federal lawsuit filed by Courthouse News Service, alleging that the state’s practice of posting new case filings impermissibly delays public and media access to new case information. Courthouse News Service has filed similar lawsuits against other court administrators in the past, each time alleging that the court’s default position should be to provide immediate electronic access once a matter is filed.

Death threats made against children of judge in Rittenhouse trial

Wisconsin judge Bruce Schroeder has drawn considerable attention for his handling of the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who is accused of killing two Antifa activists and wounding another during a riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. 

For better or worse, judges in high-profile trials always come under the microscope. And some of Judge Schroeder’s behaviors during the trial have not inspire enormous confidence in his personal and professional discretion. But fair and reasonable scrunity is quickly being replaced by physical threats, and the threats here are extremely serious.

Judge Schroeder has received thousands of vile messages, many of them including explicit death threats. Some of those threats are targeted at his children, who are now receiving round-the-clock protection. However you feel about the substance of the Rittenhouse trial, these types of actions are completely unacceptable in civilized society. Let’s hope that each and every one of these goons faces his or her own day in court in the very near future.

A tentative settlement in the PACER fee lawsuit?

Reuters reports that a settlement is brewing in the class action lawsuit alleging that the federal judiciary overcharged users for PACER access. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but after several years of litigation, including a trip to the Court of Appeals, it appears that the case may be coming to a private resolution in the next few months.

I shared thoughts on the PACER lawsuit, and the larger questions it poses for the court system, here.

Joe Biden buries the lead on his own judicial nominees

Joe Biden’s Very Bad Week continues with this unnecessarily tone-deaf press release about his latest round of federal judicial nominees. The nominees themselves are outstanding and highly qualified, and most have judicial experience at the state or federal level. Indeed, several of the nominees have been federal magistrate judges, which gives them special insight into the nuts and bolts of common procedures like arraignments (on the criminal side) and discovery disputes (on the civil side). 

But that evidently matters less to the President (and his advisors) than the nominees’ race and gender. The primary focus of the press release is on the number of Latina and Black nominees in this slate. Nothing is said up front about any of their accomplishments (except in very vague and broad language) or (in several cases) their relative youth, assuring the potential for a multi-decade career on the bench. It’s an insult to the nominees, at what should be a great moment in their legal careers, to reduce them to demographic avatars for the purpose of promoting a political agenda.

Let’s give the nominees some of the credit they deserve. Buried deep in the press release, we learn about this slate’s extraordinary diversity of legal experience: on the bench, as both prosecutors and public defenders, in the legal academy, and in private practice in areas ranging from family law to intellectual property. Some even have experience with social work and public education. That range of experience, and the different perspectives is must inculcate, will help the entire federal judicary — both in the courtroom and behind the scenes.

Congratulations to all the nominees.

What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?

Everyone wants the same thing and Congress seems ready to act. So why is the court system trying to keep legislation at bay?

Recently, I have been diving back into organizational theory — a set of theoretical frameworks about how organizations operate which inspired the creation of this blog in 2017. I have been particularly curious about the extent to which the behavior of courts and court systems — as opposed to individual judges — can be explained by external pressures from the courts’ environment. Although much of organizational theory began as a way of explaining the behavior of private firms, it has been extended to the public sector, and I am now convinced that it can profitably explain a wide range of court system behaviors.

Take a very recent example: the Wall Street Journal investigation this month, which revealed that more than 130 federal judges had presided over cases involving companies in which they owned stock. Such financial conflicts clearly require recusal, and while many (perhaps most) of the judges who did notJudge_Jennifer_Walker_Elrod recuse gave plausible explanations that they had simply failed to keep tabs on their trades, the situation has been highly embarrassing for the federal judiciary. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said that the report was “troubling” and that it was “carefully reviewing the matter.” And this week, Fifth Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod appeared before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee to reaffirm that the federal courts “have taken and will continue to take action to ensure ethical obligations, including recusal and reporting requirements, are met.”

Such assurances may not be be enough for Congress. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses to tighten recusal and reporting requirements. The Senate bill would also require the AO to develop a publicly accessible, searchable online database of judges’ financial disclosures. The federal court system therefore finds itself scrambling to avoid a legislative mandate by showing that it is able to police its financial conflicts internally. Even then, it may not be able to stave off new legislation.

This may seem like ordinary damage control. But the court system’s specific behaviors to date, and range of possible responses going forward, can also be understood through the lens of an organizational theory known as neo-institutionalism. And that theory suggests that the court system’s response is very deliberate and very calculated. Continue reading “What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?”

Great moments in online media

From my web browser’s news feed this afternoon:

Screenshot 2021-10-14 15.07.40 cropped 

The Sotomayor story is somewhat intriguing in its own right, since the most obvious change in the Supreme Court’s post-pandemic non-interruption policy has been the emergence of a vocal and inquisitive Justice Thomas at oral arguments. One can only wonder what he might have asked over the past thirty years if he had not been swimming in the Court’s predominant ethos of  argumentum interruptus.

Does requiring jurors to be vaccinated raise due process concerns?

As part of their public safety planning in the wake of the pandemic, a number of courts across the United States are beginning to require that jurors for in-person trials be vaccinated against COVID-19. That is a perfectly sensible policy. But it raises complex ancillary issues about the makeup of the jury pool once unvaccinated — but otherwise eligible — citizens are excluded from jury service.

An editorial in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly articulates the problem:

Barring unvaccinated individuals could, in some parts of the state, make it more difficult to secure enough prospective jurors. It could also skew the jury pool, leading to more homogenous and less diverse juries. 

Generally speaking, vaccinated Americans are more likely to be older, female, white, college-educated and liberal in their political leanings, while unvaccinated Americans are more likely to be younger, conservative, male or people of color. 

In Massachusetts, statistics show that in cities such as Brockton, Lowell, Springfield and Worcester the percentages of Black and Hispanic individuals who are vaccinated are well under 50 percent, and the percentages of vaccinated individuals in their 20s are significantly lower than is the case for older people. 

As the editorial further notes, there is no constitutional bar to excluding unvaccinated individuals, since they are not being denied the chance to perform jury service on the basis of race, gender, religion, or another protected category. But it could skew the jury pool away from the reasonable cross-section of the community. 

There is also the perverse satisfaction that some might take in knowing that being unvaccinated gets them out of jury service. Perhaps such jurors should still be required to serve on virtual –or even outdoor — trials, if the demand for such proceedings continues.

Supreme Court to resume in-person arguments; live audio here to stay?

The Supreme Court has announced that it will resume in-person arguments starting in October. The number of people in the courtroom will be strictly limited.

The Court will apparently continue to provide live audio of the oral arguments, a welcome bit of transparency. In addition to giving the public immediate access to hearings, the audio feed has been paired with text and photos of the Justices to allow students to more fully appreciate the flow of oral argument. (Click here, then on the “Oral argument” button on the left, for an example from oyez.org.)

The return to in-person arguments raises one other question: will the Justices continue to ask questions one at a time (in order of seniority), as they did during the pandemic-mandated telephonic hearings? Or will they go back to interrupting each other (and counsel) every chance they get? 

A judge faces a reprimand for a five-second phone call

Law360.com reports on an ethics complaint filed against Arthur Bergman, a retired state superior court judge in New Jersey. Judge Bergman allegedly made an independent phone call to a potential witness in a case over which he was presiding. Rule 3.8 of New Jersey’s Code of Judicial Conduct states, “Except as otherwise authorized by law or court rule, a judge shall not initiate or consider ex parte or other communications concerning a pending or impending proceeding.”

Judge Bergman does not contest that he made the call to a potential witness in the family trust dispute, but he maintains that the purpose of the call was simply to check the witness’s availability for a plenary hearing. The judge’s phone message, however, never referenced a hearing, and ultimately no hearing took place. Upon learning about the call, one of the attorneys in the case asked the judge to recuse himself, but Judge Bergman refused.

Complicating the story is the fact that Judge Bergman suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which apparently makes it difficult for him to speak. He maintains that this is why he did not mention the hearing on the message.

The state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct is seeking a public censure, to send a message to other judges that such behavior is not appropriate.  Judge Bergman’s own lawyer maintains that disciplining a retired judge would do nothing to preserve the integrity of the state judiciary.

What do you think, readers?