The strange saga of three Indiana judges involved in a shooting outside an Indianapolis White Castle last May has come to an end, at least for now. On Tuesday, the Indiana Supreme Court issued an opinion suspending Judges Andrew Adams, Bradley Jacobs, and Sabrina Bell without pay. The court concluded that Adams and Jacobs had engaged in judicial misconduct “by becoming involved in a physical altercation which Judge Adams was criminally charged and convicted,” and that all three judges engaged in judicial misconduct “by appearing in public in an intoxicated state and acting in an injudicious manner.” (Bell apparently gave an obscene gesture to the judges’ assailants, and Adams got involved in a physical fight in which Adams and Jacobs were seriously shot — more details here and here.)
The story has been worth following, and not only because state judges were shot point-blank in a fast food parking lot. The judges’ drunken and disorderly behavior has brought significant reputational harm to the rest of the state judiciary. After all, they were at a state judicial conference when this drunken encounter took place. This situation is far outside the normal range of damage control for most court public information officers.
And then there is the organizational harm in the form of increased workload for the judges’ coworkers. Jacobs and Bell received a 30-day suspension, and Adams 60 days (some of which has already been served). Someone has to pick up the slack with those judges out, and the courts cannot simply hire new staff to handle the dockets. As it is, the county courts in which the judges work are asking senior judges to take up most of the pending cases until the suspended judges return. A sensible use of resources, to be sure, but it still comes with internal costs.
For their part, the suspended judges appeared contrite. I am sure the entire experience for them has been harrowing, humbling, and literally painful.
With certain federal district courts operating with a profound number of judicial vacancies, court leaders are increasingly going public with the need to fully populate their benches. The most recent salvo has come from Chief Judge Virginia Phillips of the Central District of California, who wrote a letter to Senators Lindsey Graham, Dianne Feinstein, and Kamala Harris, urging them to find ways to fill the district’s vacancies.
The Central District of California, encompassing Los Angeles and environs, is authorized by federal law to have 28 active district judges. The Judicial Conference of the United States recently concluded that in fact, the district needs 38 full-time active judges to meet its workload. But the district is currently operating with only half that number (and nine formal vacancies). The last new judge was confirmed back in 2014.
The Central District has one of the heaviest workloads in the country, as measured by weighted caseload filings. Will California’s Democratic Senators and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican leadership do the right thing and fill those vacancies? As we enter another election year, it’s hard to be optimistic.
Surprise me, Senators. Do the right thing.
The Washington Times reports that Senator Lindsey Graham will step down as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in early 2021, and that Senator Chuck Grassley will again take the Chairman’s gavel. Grassley was instrumental in steering the Supreme Court nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh through the Committee.
Law.com reports on a campaign mailer sent to residents of Sullivan County, New York, which accuses a Democratic judicial candidate of being a socialist and favoring the legalization of drugs. Her Republican opponent has taken full credit for the mailer, which was designed to look like a local newspaper. The accused candidate has denied the allegations of socialism and drug legalization, and has filed a complaint with the state broad of elections.
Judicial candidates acting injudiciously.
The Detroit News has a fascinating and distressing story about how partisan politics are influencing judicial nominations in three different Michigan courts, covering both the federal and state levels of the judiciary.
Briefly, the state has two federal district court vacancies, one in the Western District of Michigan and one in the Eastern District. The vacancies have been difficult to fill because the Senate’s “blue slip” process essentially allows the state’s two Democratic senators to block the confirmations of any Trump nominees that they do not like. In light of this reality, state Republicans and Democrats worked out a compromise: the seat in the Eastern District would be filled by current Magistrate Judge Stephanie Davis, and the seat on in the Western District would be filled by a nominee supported by the Republican establishment. The plan would have made Davis the first African-American woman nominated to the federal bench by President Trump.
The pact fell apart, however, after Trump’s Western District nominee, Michael Bogren, lost the confidence of Senate Republicans. State Republicans scrambled to find a new nominee, and seemed to have landed on state appeals court judge Brock Swartzel. In the meantime, the Davis nomination was frozen in its tracks.
Then, out of nowhere, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra offered himself up as a nominee for the Western District vacancy. Zahra is a Republican (judges run for the bench with party affiliations in Michigan), and pledged to resign from the state supreme court if Trump nominated him and the state’s Senators agreed not to oppose his nomination. The move would allow a Democrat to be appointed to the state supreme court in his place, tipping the partisan balance of that court toward the Dems.
The article calls the proposal “a neat package” which, among other things, would allow Zahra to collect a federal salary as well as a state pension. But the partisan brazenness of the proposal is appalling, at least to this blogger. How could Zahra even pretend to be impartial if he was placed in the federal bench? And what role does he see for party affiliation on the trial bench, typically the least politicized aspect of the judiciary?
It is an increasingly popular take among partisans on both sides to criticize the judiciary as politicized and biased. Those concerns start with the judicial selection process, in which the very same partisans exert their dismal control.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has issued an RFI seeking information on cloud-based services to support the federal judiciary’s current and future IT needs. While the judiciary is not yet seeking proposals or looking to hire a provider, it is very interested in learning about the implementation of cloud broker contracts within other areas of the federal government.
Another under-the-radar example of how the courts operate like major organizations quite apart from their public personae as robed oracles of the law.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced a new bill in the Senate, dubbed the Judicial Travel Accountability Act. (It has not yet received a number.) The bill would increase the financial disclosures put on federal judges regarding their travel. Bloomberg Law reports:
The Ethics in Government Act requires that judges’ disclosures include only the identity of the source and a brief description of reimbursements over $390. But judges don’t have to identify the dollar value of the reimbursement, and are exempted entirely from reporting any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality,” Whitehouse said in a news release.
The Judicial Travel Accountability Act would require “judicial officers’” financial disclosure statements to include the dollar amount of transportation, lodging, and meal expense reimbursements and gifts, as well as a detailed description of any meetings and events attended.
The bill calls for disclosures to be filed within 15 days of a trip and to be made available on a public website. The Supreme Court doesn’t post its financial disclosures online and they are made available only once a year
In an ordinary political cycle, it would be easier to see this is as a truly bipartisan effort to promote public confidence in the judiciary, akin perhaps to the regularly introduced “Sunshine in the Courtroom” Acts that seek to bring cameras and other transparency mechanisms into the courthouse. But this is not an ordinary political cycle, and it is hard to see this bill as anything other than a political ploy. Start with Senator Whitehouse, whose public treatment of the Supreme Court has become increasingly unhinged as of late, and who chose to begin his remarks with a focus on the Supreme Court even though its Justices represent less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire federal judiciary. Then there is the list of co-sponsors: 12 Democrats (including two current presidential hopefuls) and only one Republican. It’s not difficult to see this bill as primarily an effort to turn the courts into a political football once again.
It is a dangerous thing when politicians drag the court system into their partisan squabbles, and it is in my view a significant reason why the public increasingly sees the courts as political. But while the federal courts cannot stop Congress from introducing pointed legislation, it can render such legislative chicanery moot by adopting its own reporting practices. Put differently, if the court system itself required judges to report more fully their travel junkets, rather than waiting for Congress to mandate it, courts would reap the benefits of increased public confidence and would not find themselves dragged into the political muck. More on this point in a future post.