What just happened? March 2017 roundup

The month in a nutshell: courts keep their heads down as legislatures awaken

The most prominent news of the last month centered on the confirmation hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court and President Trump’s social media pronouncements about federal judges. Beyond the front page headlines, however, courts at every level were confronting challenges to their structure, autonomy, and legitimacy. 

The U.S. Congress focused its efforts on legislation to mandate cameras in Supreme Court proceedings (a topic also raised with Judge Gorsuch) and to divide the Ninth Circuit.  Both proposals have been offered many times before, although the Ninth Circuit split has more of a political dimension.  Neither proposal is likely to get very far in the current Congress.

The more significant proposals impacting the courts occurred at the state level, as new legislatures met and introduced a flurry of bills.  North Carolina moved back to fully partisan elections, while Indiana considered an opposite move to a merit selection model for Marion County.  Kentucky engaged in some needed housekeeping, reallocating its state judges to better serve the needs of its citizens.

The highly active environment was not limited to legislatures.  Repeatedly, courts were asked to determine legal issues affecting their own administration and organization, from the legality of judicial selection methods, to the constitutionality of mandatory judicial retirement ages, to the wisdom of permitting cameras and social media in courtroom proceedings.

The month also saw the release of fresh statistics on federal court dockets and administration.  In a typically low-key and stoic way, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a wealth of data on court dockets and performance.

At bottom, it was a busy month — perhaps atypically so.  While challenges swarmed around them — some brought externally by exuberant legislators and executives, others internally by members of their own branch — courts largely tried to keep their heads down, do their work quietly and competently, and stay as much as possible out of the public eye.

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