What just happened? April 2017 roundup

The month in a nutshell: judicial selection drama continues, and court systems work to improve access and efficiency even as individual judges make headlines for the wrong reasons

After the hurly-burly of Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings in March, one might have hoped for a calmer month of April on the judicial selection front. But high-profile stories continued at both the federal and state level. President Trump started to turn his attention to the more than 100 vacancies in the federal district and appellate courts, but unwisely rejected pre-selection vetting of nominees from the American Bar Association.  The President also left open whether he would consider suggested judicial nominees coming from bipartisan screening committees — an opportunity to foster some bipartisan agreement and smooth the nomination process for lower federal judges.

States which select judges through contested elections also experienced ongoing tumult, in the form of legislation and litigation.  And too many judges made the news for behaving unprofessionally.

In North Carolina, the tug-of-war between the governor and the state legislature left state courts caught in the middle, culminating in a remarkable afternoon in which a judge resigned early in order to preserve the size of the state court of appeals.  In Louisiana, a trial challenging the entire judicial election system on civil rights grounds finally concluded; a decision is expected later this summer.  In New York City, the byzantine election process has made it nearly impossible to find candidates willing to serve interim terms on the bench.

Unprofessional or questionable behavior from the bench also made sporadic but memorable headlines.  A newly elected Chicago judge refused his assignment to the traffic court, where almost every new judge starts out.  A Canadian judge surprised courtroom observers when he appeared on the bench wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.  Controversial Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, already suspended from his duties for ethics violations, resigned to run for the Senate.  Semi-relatedly, the Supreme Court continued to demur on the need for its own code of ethics.

Beyond the headlines, the courts themselves methodically continued with careful self-assessment and plans for improvement: Brooklyn’s courts are working to administer their criminal docket more efficiently, Delaware is considering whether to unify its problem-solving courts, and Minnesota is working to expand access to self-represented litigants.

A busy month, and one in which courts’ efforts to improve their internal administration and confront their external environments was keenly on display.



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