Wheeler on the public and the federal judiciary

Liberals frustrated with the current direction of the U.S. Supreme Court have initiated another round of Court-packing schemes. These proposals are nothing more than sound and fury for an agitated left-of-center base, but Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institute offers a typically insightful and sober analysis on a possible disconnect between the Court and the public, and what might result after 2020. It’s well worth the read.

Poland’s new “Disciplinary Office” is another political threat to judges

The relentless threats to the Polish judiciary from the state’s ruling “Law and Justice” party have taken yet another distressing turn. Just Security reports on the state’s new Disciplinary Office for Common Court Judges, designed to control and punish individual judges who stand up for the rule of law. As the article notes:

Together with the politicization of the Disciplinary Chamber, the message is clear for all members of the judiciary: follow the party line or face the consequences. Indeed, there are early indicators that most of the disciplinary actions taken against judges so far have targeted judges who have been outspoken on issues of judicial independence and the rule of law.

Alaska governor backs down, will choose judge from existing slate of nominees

Last week, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy refused to appoint a state trial judge from the list of nominees provided to him by the Alaska Judicial Council, expressing concern that certain qualified applicants were “inexplicably” not included on the list. In response, Alaska Chief Justice Joel Bolger defended the existing selection process.

The governor and chief justice met to discuss the impasse earlier this week, and seem to have reached an understanding. Dunleavy has now agreed that he must choose a judge from the existing list of nominees. Publicly, the governor has pushed to broaden the list of nominees in the future, which is a perfectly sensible policy discussion to take up. In the meantime, it is good news that this particular kerfuffle has ended with minimal damage.

Tennessee considers bill to require legislative confirmation of judicial appointees

Tennessee uses a version of the Missouri Plan to select its state appellate judges. Known (unsurprisingly) as the Tennessee Plan, it calls for an independent nominating commission to present a slate of qualified candidates to the governor, who must appoint a judge from that slate. (This is akin to most merit selection plans around the country.) The judges then stand for retention elections.

Trial court vacancies are filled using a similar process. A nominating commission (whose members are appointed by the legislature) presents a slate of names to the governor within 60 days of a judicial vacancy, and the governor must choose a new judge from that slate.

Under the current system, legislators no direct role in filling judicial vacancies, but a bill working its way through the state legislature is aiming to change that. For new trial judges, House Bill 1257 would require the governor to provide a written notice of appointment to the clerk of each legislative chamber, which would trigger a 60-day period for each chamber to confirm the nominee. If both the Senate and House reject the nominee, or if even one chamber rejects the nominee by a two-thirds majority, the appointment would fail. If neither of these things happens within 60 days, however, the appointment would be deemed valid.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the legislature wanting to have a say in judicial appointments, but in the absence of a pressing concern about the current process, it’s hard to see why this is a good idea. The use of an independent commission is already designed to cut down the risks of partisanship or patronage, and to ensure qualified candidates. And because a nominee may not take the bench under this bill until legislative confirmation or the passage of sixty days after nomination, the judiciary would be left with longer periods of unfilled vacancies.

The bill has only worked its way through the House Judiciary Subcommittee, and has a long road to travel before becoming law. But it’s hard to see why this idea is particularly wise, necessary, or beneficial to those who rely on Tennessee courts to be efficient and effective.

Alaska governor refuses to follow state’s judicial nominating procedures

Alaska’s constitution, like that of many western states, embraces a merit selection process for judges. An independent nominating commission (here, the Alaska Judicial Council) reviews the applications of judicial aspirants and selects a slate of names, which it forwards to the governor, who in turn must choose a candidate from the slate. The system has operated without incident for sixty years … until now.

Governor Mike Dunleavy, provided with a slate of nominees for the Palmer Superior Court, has refused to name anyone to the open seat on the court. The governor’s reasoning appears to be that there were other qualified candidates who “inexplicably” (in his view) were not included among the nominating committee’s choices.

The governor has 45 days under state law to choose from among the candidates provided by the commission. Forty-five days have now passed, and no one is sure what will happen next. The state’s chief justice has defended the sanctity of the current nominating process.

The governor seems to be plainly in the wrong here. Merit selection systems deliberately divide the power of judicial appointments among multiple actors to reduce the risks of patronage and political partisanship. The governor does not appear to argue that the candidates provided by the commission were unacceptable, only that there are others he would prefer. That is not his prerogative. He should fill the seats with a qualified nominee provided by the commission, and give the state courts the judicial staffing they deserve.

 

Why the Judicial Conference is asking for more judges

Last week, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress add 73 permanent judgeships around the country. These are new judicial positions which would have to be filled, above and beyond the more than 120 existing federal judicial vacancies nationwide.

Political commentators have predictably seen this request through partisan lenses, noting (for example) that if all the requested judgeships were added and filled in short order, President Trump could “flip” the ideological composition of the Ninth Circuit. Given the current ugliness in Washington over proposals to pack the Supreme Court for partisan gain, it’s not entirely surprising that some would see the Judicial Conference’s request for more judges as having similarly political dimensions.

But the Conference must make its recommendation to Congress every two years, and that recommendation is based on hard evidence concerning the workload of the courts. Law360 has a good breakdown of the statistics behind the request, noting that nearly a third of the federal district courts have per-judge workloads that far exceed the recommended level.

It’s not clear if and when Congress will act on the request, although I certainly would not hold my breath on anything happening soon. In the meantime, the federal court system will continue to rely on internal strategies to manage its workload, including the use of senior judges and visiting judges in courts with otherwise crushing dockets.

Growing dockets, many vacancies in the federal courts

I have a new op-ed in The Hill, noting the unfortunate conflation of growth in federal case filing, the mass of ongoing judicial vacancies, and ugly partisanship in the judicial confirmation process. Key grafs:

These partisan inquisitions are embarrassing and wholly unnecessary. The vast majority of federal cases do not raise political questions. Whether a contract was breached or a patent infringed is neither a matter of liberal or conservative ideology nor one of broad significance. By contrast, the ongoing vacancies crisis in the courts is a matter of national concern. For private litigants, a shortage of judges means longer waits for trials and orders, and increased financial and emotional cost on clients resulting from the delays. For the general public, fewer judges means a justice system that is less efficient, less transparent, and even less trustworthy.

Just imagine if other important civic institutions such as police and fire services, churches and synagogues, and schools and hospitals had to rely entirely on politicians to meet their staffing needs. Imagine if the career of a promising doctor, teacher, or firefighter depended not on her relevant skills and experience, but whether she belonged to the right kind of civic organization or took the wrong stand on an issue in college. What kind of applicants would seek those jobs and run that gauntlet? What quality of employee would it ultimately produce? How long could people endure all the resulting delays and inefficiencies before it became too unbearable?

Please read the whole thing!