The month in a nutshell: the governments of Ireland and North Carolina are each rattled by judicial selection controversies, a group of Brooklyn lawyers challenges the city’s de facto judgemakers, and courts around the world make quiet adjustments to better serve their communities and customers.
June 2017 was highlighted by two extensive controversies over judicial selection procedures on each side of the Atlantic. In Ireland, the outgoing government gave a last-minute judicial appointment to Attorney General Maire Whelan, sparking outrage from minority parties in the government and threatening the viability of the new government. The story continues to play out, as government officials seek to implement a new judicial screening committee. In Pennsylvania, after another messy election season in May, a move away from elections and toward merit selection was endorsed by a small cohort of legislators and five former governors. And in North Carolina, itself no stranger to judicial selection wars this spring, the state chief justice threw his own support to merit selection in an address to the state bar.
Another challenge to established judicial selection procedures was more homegrown. Brooklyn attorney John O’Hara announced a slate of six “independent” Democrats who will seek judicial seats outside of the Democratic Party machine. O’Hara and his cohort argue that the party’s “so called independent judicial screening panel is not very independent.” They may have a point, if this embarrassing meet-and-greet with a local party boss or this scathing editorial are any indication.
The month was also noteworthy for a number of events that made international news. In Australia, local politicians were haled into court to explain why they should not be held in contempt for criticizing judges and eroding trust in the judicial system. (Check out the interesting discussion I had about this with reader El Roam in the comments.) The United Kingdom agreed to take on a year-long study of judicial pay and working conditions, amidst furious attacks on the judiciary in the wake of Brexit and a recent poll suggesting lower rates of public confidence in the British judiciary. In Israel, watchdog groups questioned the court’s official statistics on divorce proceedings, again illustrating the challenges faced (and posed) by specialized religious courts in a pluralistic society. And in India, a courthouse literally collapsed.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the wrong lawyer. Sigh.
Through it all, and much more quietly, there were almost daily examples of courts and legislatures making changes to the way they do business in order to better align with the needs of the communities they serve. Minnesota added two new judges to help address the growth in criminal and child protection filings. Eagle, Colorado developed a partnership between a problem-solving court and a local Masonic Lodge to give vocational training to recovering drug and alcohol offenders. And El Paso County, Texas, converted a civil court into a family court to better reflect the nature of its filings.
Again, a recurring theme in emerging in these monthly roundups: while high-profile issues of judicial selection, judicial ethics, and judicial independence dominate the headlines, the much lower profile work of efficient caseload processing, internal allocation of resources, and working with the community itself proceeds unabated.