Courts are using text messages to remind defendants to appear

The AP explains that more than twelve state court systems are embracing text messages to remind defendants to show up for critical hearings and trials. It seems to work: a pilot program in New York City cut no-shows by 26 percent.

Want a lighter sentence? Wait for your birthday

That’s the bottom line of this fascinating study by Daniel Chen and Arnaud Philippe. The authors looked at more than four million sentencing decisions in France, and another 600,000 in the U.S. federal courts. They found that French sentences are 3% shorter, and U.S. federal sentences are 33% shorter in the day component, when the defendant is celebrating a birthday. (Month components were unaffected.) The authors also found that in the U.S. courts, significant birthday leniency exists only where the defendant and the judge share the same race.

I am always cautious about making too much of one study, but there certainly seems to be some basis for the authors’ conclusion that “social norms transmitted through rituals can perversely lead to unfair or incorrect decisions in important situations even when professional norms have been designed to mute them.”

Judicial elections in the #MeToo era

I am pleased to announce that my article, Judicial Recall and Retention in the #MeToo Era, has been published in the latest issue of Court Review. It is part of a symposium issue on the recall election of Judge Aaron Persky in California last June.

The article identifies strong similarities between the efforts to recall Judge Persky and later efforts to prevent the retention of Judge Michael Corey in Alaska and Justice Carol Corrigan in California. As I explain in the article, the parallels are troubling because recall elections and retention elections historically developed at different times and for different reasons. The utilization of recall tactics in retention elections is therefore a worrisome development.

Court Review is the official journal of the American Judges Association. I recommend the entire issue for anyone interested in the Persky saga and lessons that may be drawn from it.

On federal laws and state courthouses

By now,  many readers may be familiar with the growing tensions between states and the federal government over the Trump Administration policy of arresting illegal immigrants outside (and inside) state courthouses. The issue has been brewing for some time, and came to a head in Massachusetts this week when a state court judge and court officer were themselves arrested by federal authorities for helping Jose Medina-Perez, an illegal immigrant in their courtroom on drug charges, evade imminent arrest by an ICE agent by spiriting him out the back door of the courthouse.

Yesterday, in what they maintain is merely a coincidence of timing, two Massachusetts District Attorneys filed a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking to enjoin ICE from making any further arrests in state courthouses.

My former law school classmate Ted Folkman has an excellent rundown of the events and a sensible take on it at Letters Blogatory.  He writes:

My best understanding of the law is that the immigration agent had the right to seek to detain Medina-Perez in the courtroom and that the judge probably shouldn’t have put obstacles (or perhaps “obstructions”) in his way, though I do not want to offer an opinion about whether the judge’s conduct satisfies the elements of the criminal statutes without studying them. Again, we want to think back to another era and the contexts in which states sought to thwart federal law enforcement, and not make a legal rule based just on the sympathies of the moment. But that said, I also think it’s a terrible idea to send immigration agents to courthouses in the first place to arrest people, because it discourages people from attending court and is contrary to efforts to increase access to justice. And I find it hard to see why the federal government thinks the answer is to charge the judge criminally rather than for the Massachusetts court to exercise self-governance.

Two points here deserve elaboration. First, the federal policy is a terrible thing for the operation of state courts and their users. It represents a clear intrusion by a separate sovereign that threatens to disrupt state court proceedings. More importantly, the fear of arrest by ICE agents is sure to dissuade people from coming to court when it is necessary that they do so. The administration of justice will suffer as victims and key witnesses don’t show up for hearings and trials. Claims of domestic violence, child custody, landlord-tenant relations, personal injuries, and a variety of other issues either will not be brought at all, or will lead to default judgments when the defendants fail to appear. If the American tradition of due process means anything, it is that even those who are not citizens — even those who are not here legally — deserve a fair day in court.

At the same time, state courts and state judges are simply not free to ignore federal law and policy with which they disagree. American history is rife with examples of states unacceptably undermining federal law through the operation of their own court systems. Again, if due process means anything, it is that the law must be fairly applied in every venue, regardless of (as Ted puts it) “the sympathies of the moment.” And the charges against the Massachusetts judge, if proven, are quite damning: she allegedly closed her courtroom to the ICE agent, turned off the electronic recording system, and snuck a federal fugitive out the back door of the courthouse. Regardless of how you come down on the morality of her action, her alleged behavior was remarkably unjudicial.

Put differently — we have courts of law, not courts of justice. There are established procedures in place to stop harmful conduct. The lawsuit discussed above is one such procedure; taking the law into your own hands while wearing the robe is not. Whether or not one sympathizes with the intent of the state judge here, her alleged activities have surely damaged the integrity of the state judiciary.

 

Dead judges cannot decide cases

That was the recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Yovino v. Rizo, a case decided at the end of February. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had issued its opinion, which included the vote of Judge Stephen Reinhardt, eleven days after Reinhardt passed away in March 2018. The Ninth Circuit panel justified the decision to include Reinhardt’s vote by noting:

“Prior to his death, Judge Reinhardt fully participated in this case and authored this opinion. The majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed by the en banc court prior to his death.”

The Supreme Court disagreed, explaining that federal judges “are appointed for life, not for eternity.”

Donald Scarinci has a nice breakdown of the opinion and the underlying case in The Observer.

 

Federal courts seek cloud-based Learning Management System

File this one under: Things courts do because they are big organizations.

Earlier this month, the Procurement Office of the United States Courts issued a Request for Information for a cloud-based learning management system that could accommodate up to 20,000 users. The purpose is to update the court system’s existing learning management system, and make it easier for federal court employees across the country to engage in web-based training.

This got a lot of attention among the private organizations that provide IT services to the government, but virtually no attention anywhere else. But it is a reminder that the primary theme of this blog — that court system are massive organizations whose day-to-day behavior mirrors that of other massive organizations — is in evidence behind the scenes on a regular basis.

 

The Affirmation Alternative: A Religious Case for Atheist Oaths

A guest post by M. Ryan Groff

On March 30, 2019, Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke at Pepperdine University School of Law’s 2019 annual dinner. He reflected broadly on the relationship between faith and judicial duty, drawing from his own experiences and also from past conversations with his former colleague, the late Antonin Scalia. During a brief aside, Justice Thomas questioned the meaning of oaths made by atheists:

“As an aside, I think it’s really interesting that people in a profession where we all take an oath, that they would look at people who have strong faith as somehow not good people when, if you’re an atheist, what does an oath mean? If you are a Christian, and you believe in God, what does an oath mean? You know, what do you say at the end of it? ‘So help me God.’ And you have taken an oath to God, and, as Mother Theresa said, it’s between you and God. So, you have given your word… when you give your word to God, is that special? And I think if you are faithful, you think it is special, and you work doubly hard to make sure you live up to it… Not only doesn’t it [faith] interfere in any way, it actually enhances your view of the oath.”

It is not difficult to understand what Justice Thomas means. If someone swears on something he does not believe exists, then there is good cause to question the trustworthiness of whatever was promised. However, the concern with these comments, ironically, has to do with oathtaking in colonial America and one of Congress’s earliest interpretations of the Constitution. Continue reading “The Affirmation Alternative: A Religious Case for Atheist Oaths”