Against the partisan labeling of Supreme Court Justices

My colleague Lawrence Friedman (an occasional contributor to this blog) has a very nice piece in The Hill today, explaining why labeling individual Supreme Court Justices as “liberal” or “conservative” is a mistake. A snippet:

Attaching such labels to the justices is a common and unfortunate fixture of our politically polarized era. To be sure, the conservative and liberal tags may be accurate to the extent that they characterize the results of a Supreme Court decision as more favorable to one or the other political camp. The labels serve to shorthand judicial decisions for people who desire to know the bottom line. Does the result favor my side or theirs?

But it does not follow that the justices should be characterized in the same way. The shorthand may be helpful to those readers or viewers seeking to absorb the implications of a Supreme Court decision. The problem is that these labels fail accurately to reflect both the role of the Supreme Court in our governmental scheme and the ways in which the justices approach the critical task of judicial review in our democracy.

I urge you to read the whole thing.

Massachusetts judge rejects plea deal in ICE evasion case

Shelley Joseph, the Massachusetts state judge who has been charged with helping an illegal immigrant evade an ICE official in her courthouse, has rejected a plea deal from federal prosecutors. Joseph was suspended from the bench after her arrest.

Joseph’s alleged actions have caused enormous controversy in the Bay State, raising difficult questions of federal-state relations, access and safety in state courthouses, and a wealth of moral and ethical considerations.

MassLive has a full report for those following this story closely.

Indiana judge, shot in White Castle skirmish, set to return to the bench

Judge Bradley Jacobs, who presides in the Clark County (Ind.) Circuit Court, will return to the bench after spending three months recovering from a gunshot wound. Judge Jacobs and a colleague, Drew Adams, were shot outside a White Castle restaurant in Indianapolis in the wee hours of the morning on May 1. They were in town for a judicial conference.

Judge Adams, the gunman, and one other man have been charged in the incident. Judge Adams has since been suspended from the bench for his role in the fight. Judge Jacobs was not charged.

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.