No vacancies, but a docket crisis nonetheless

I have been writing recently about the vacancy crisis in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, which has only 11 active judges despite a statutory entitlement to 17 (and a Judicial Conference recommendation for 20). But docket challenges can occur even where a court has its full complement of judges. This story highlights the docket overload in the Middle District of Louisiana, which has all three of its authorized judges in place but which still struggles to manage its docket, one of the heaviest in the nation.

Happily, it appears that Senator John Kennedy is continuing to push for more resources for the district. But in our fractured age, when every judicial appointment has taken on a (misplaced) political tint, it’s nearly impossible to expect that Congress will adequately address the resource need.

Another Brazilian court will hide its judges’ identities to protect them

The Rio de Janiero State Court in Brazil will begin prosecuting corruption cases through special “faceless” courts designed to hide the identity of the presiding judges. It is the seventh Brazilian state to implement such a system. The change is coming after more than twenty judges received police protection from death threats by gangs and organized crime.

Under the new system, three judges will rotate every sixty days and all decisions will be signed by the principal judge. Variations of the system were used to protect judges in Colombia in the 1990s.

This is obviously an extreme development, and the safety of the judiciary must be taken seriously. But it comes at a serious cost — the accused will not be able to know the identity of, the very person who will be condemning them to prison (or worse). It’s a dark moment for everyone when due process must be diluted for the sake of judicial safety.

Feeling the squeeze, New Jersey’s federal court may borrow judges from Pennsylvania

I previously reported on the judicial vacancy crisis in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The court, entitled to 17 active district judges by law (and recommended to have 20), is now operating with only 11 active judges due to a recent spate of retirements. Making matters worse is the district’s docket — the second heaviest in the nation — and the fact that President Trump has not nominated a single candidate to fill the district’s judicial vacancies.

Chief Judge Freda Wolfson has not been shy about discussing the challenges facing her court. Unable to replace judges on its own, the district is seeking creative ways to manage its docket, including encouraging parties to consent to trial by magistrate, turning away multidistrict litigation, and borrowing “visiting” judges from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The use of visiting judges is not new, and the federal courts have shared judicial resources to the extent permitted by law for nearly a century. Indeed, in the early 1920s Chief Justice Taft (a favorite of this blog) proposed a “flying squadron” of judges who would not be assigned to any specific district but would instead be available to serve in any district where needs were the highest. That suggestion was rejected by Congress, but even today the courts show their ability to adapt to resource deficiencies beyond their control, and beyond their ability to remedy directly.

On the politics of judicial identity

Two recent stories illustrate the slippery role that stereotypes and identity politics play in state judicial elections. In Louisiana, judicial candidate Ron Johnson appeared in campaign ads wearing his twin brother’s judicial robe and calling himself “Judge Johnson.” (His brother is a sitting judge.) Johnson admitted his mistake and accepted responsibility for it, but the intent was clearly to send the message that he was an incumbent judge — and probably to take advantage of the professional goodwill his brother had already amassed on the bench.

Elsewhere, Caroline Cohen defeated three other candidates for a seat on the civil court bench in Brooklyn’s 6th judicial district last Tuesday. But one of her opponents, Tehilah Berman, charges that Cohen — nee Caroline Piela — took her husband’s identifiably Jewish last name shortly before the election in order to attract Orthodox Jewish voters in the district. Cohen apparently also ran ads in Jewish publications with the Biblical injunction “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” Berman, who finished last in the race, claims that Cohen deliberately presented herself as a devout Jew in order to draw in votes.

We have seen sketchy campaign behavior before, including judicial candidates cynically manipulating their names for electoral gain. Last year, an even more egregious example was set when Chicago lawyer Phillip Spiwack named changed his name to Shannon O’Malley on the theory that a female, Irish name would make him a shoo-in with Cook County voters. Sadly, it worked. In another recent incident, a Nevada judge seeking reelection photoshopped Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson alongside her in a print ad, even though he had never endorsed her candidacy.

But seeing these two most recent incidents side by side was particularly striking, because they both undermine public confidence in the judiciary, but in opposite directions. Ron Johnson’s impersonation of a sitting judge preyed on the positive stereotypes that voters associate with the judicial robe. As I explain in part here, citizens associate the generic judge with a high level of impartiality, dignity, and inherent sense of fairness.  When a judicial candidate dons the robe and is later found to have acted unethically, positive associations with the robe and the judiciary go down.

Caroline Cohen’s name switch (occurring as it did months before the election, and after 13 years of marriage) was arguably even worse, as it sought to take advantage of the modern identity politics that have been sown so dismayingly at the national level. Cohen was banking on Orthodox Jewish voters choosing “one of their own” at the polls, having done no other homework on the candidates or their qualities and qualifications. She turns out to have been correct in that assumption (and indeed, similar behavior has been recorded in various parts of the country for decades), but at what cost? The entire episode moves public beliefs about the judiciary away from the ideals of neutrality, experience, and competence, and closer to the cynical wisdom of “she is one of ‘my’ people, and will put a finger on the scale for me if I ever need it.”

Modern politicians use identity politics divisively to create natural voter bases, and to later whip those bases into a froth with perceived slights against their group. The whole premise is degrading, dehumanizing, and de-democratizing, albeit an effective tool in our troubled times for the small-minded politician. Judges and judicial candidates, however, can never afford to peddle in the cramped and dark politics of identity. In doing so, they give away their greatest assets: the promise of equal justice for all.

Judge indicted in White Castle scuffle that led to his own shooting

In early May, a thoroughly bizarre and tragic story came out of Indianapolis. Two Indiana state judges, in town for a statewide judicial conference, had been shot outside a White Castle restaurant in the wee hours of the morning. Both men survived the shooting, and police concluded early on that they had not been targeted because they were judges, but the incident left the entire state judiciary shaken.

Now another strange turn: one of the injured judges, Andrew Adams, has been indicted by a grand jury for his role in the incident. He faces seven counts of low-level felony and misdemeanor charges.

The prosecutor has been very careful to stress the complicated nature of the investigation, which involved two grand juries and everyone claiming self defense. In the meantime, the Indiana Supreme Court has suspended Adams without pay, pending the outcome of the criminal charges and any related disciplinary proceeding.

I did not post about the shooting when it happened because the facts seemed so uncertain. But moving forward, the story certainly bears watching.

New Jersey federal judges speak out on vacancy crisis

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey is authorized by law to have 17 active (i.e., full time) district judges. Since 2015, however, retirements have dwindled that number to 11 active judges. And simultaneously, the number of case filings has gone up 150 percent. As a result, the district today faces terrible docket congestion. The number of cases pending more than three years has more than doubled, and the total number of pending cases has more than tripled, over the last four years.

Now some of the district’s judges are speaking out. In a story published on NJ.com, Chief Judge Freda Wolfson insisted that Congress and the President should do their job and fill the vacancies.

While Wolfson said the judges continue to work around the clock and treat every case — no matter the magnitude — diligently, the sheer number of cases is going to inevitably slow down the process.

“We need help tremendously,” Wolfson said. “It is not just to relieve the burden on the judges. It is because we need to service the public as quickly as we can in a just manner.”

There is plenty of fault to go around. The Trump Administration has not put forward a single nomination for the District of New Jersey, even as it works to fill other judicial vacancies at a rapid pace. And in any event, neither of the state’s Democratic Senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, have suggested any willingness to work with the Administration on potential nominees.

As I wrote for The Hill back in March, judicial vacancy emergencies like this stress the capacity of the courts and damage the administration of justice in all cases — most of which are entirely apolitical, garden-variety disputes. Playing politics with judicial appointments is damaging and largely pointless.

The head of a Florida judicial nominating commission resigns. Who is to blame?

A strange story has emerged out of Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit. The head of the Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, attorney Alan Landman, resigned after a kerfuffle with Governor Ron DeSantis over the commission’s recommendations for an open judicial seat in Brevard County. Landman maintains that he had no choice but to resign after the Governor directly interfered with the independence of the nominating commission. The Governor’s representatives, by contrast, maintain that Landman was asked for his resignation after he inappropriately pushed his own preferred candidate.

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