Judge, Jury, and … Defendant?

A former public defender sued the federal judiciary’s lead administrative institutions for mishandling a harassment claim. Can those same institutions select the judges who hear the case?

Next week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear argument in Roe v. United States, a case involving allegations that federal court officials — including those in the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) — mishandled a workplace harassment claim. But none of the judges hearing the Fourth Circuit appeal are actually from the Fourth Circuit, just as the judge who heard the original case in the Western District of North Carolina was not from that district. Nearly two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts reassigned the case to a district judge in Massachusetts and a “Fourth Circuit” panel composed of judges from other circuits.

From the courts’ perspective, this reassignment of the case was ordinary and ministerial, a way of avoiding the appearance of partiality or bias by taking the case away from judges in the district and circuit where the key events took place. But the plaintiff, whose case was eventually  dismissed, suggests that the process of reassignment was itself so flawed as to create “blatant conflicts of interest” and a “severe appearance of impropriety.” Accordingly, she is seeking to vacate the judgment of dismissal. 

The controversial reassignment process involved the Chief Justice, the Judicial Conference Intercircuit Assignment Committee, and staff from the AO and the Fourth Circuit. The judiciary’s brief recounts that a Fourth Circuit staffer informed an AO staffer about about the need for an intercircuit assignment — both for the district court and appellate proceedings. The AO staffer then consulted a roster of judges who had previously indicated their willingness and availability to serve on panels in cases in which one or more judges had been recused. The AO staffer then contacted each of the judges to confirm availability and willingness to serve on the case. Once the judges were confirmed, the staffer notified the Chair of the Intercircuit Assignment Committee, who finalized the necessary administrative paperwork for the Chief Justice’s signature.

The court system (represented, interestingly enough, by the Department of Justice) repeatedly characterizes this process as “routine,” noting that none of the individuals involved in the reassignment had any stake in the outcome of the case. Still, the plaintiff is unsatisfied. Although she does not claim that any of the reassigned judges are actually biased against her, the mere fact that individuals from the Judicial Conference and AO were involved in their selection is a glaring red flag. As plaintiff’s brief puts it, “[w]here following a routine process would create a conflict of interest in a particular case, the routine is supposed to yield–through proper recusal–in order to avoid the conflict of interest.”

This is a matter of substantial organizational complexity. Taken at face value, the plaintiff’s position suggests that any lawsuit naming the Judicial Conference or AO as a party would necessarily invalidate any reassignment, unless a completely different administrative apparatus is tasked with that responsibility. That could be accomplished only with considerable inefficiency. Even if the AO were to hand over its files on available judges to another office within the federal court system so as to wash its hands of the decision, the files themselves might arguably be tainted by having come from the AO. And, of course, the mechanism for selecting new judges would be placed into the hands of individuals and institutions who are not readily equipped to perform that function. 

Unfortunately, the plaintiff does not offer any clear solutions here, other than blanket vacatur of the lower court decision. That is her right, and perhaps it is good strategy. But it is hard to see how the current panel would simply throw the reassignment process into disarray without some idea of how the challenge could be met in the future.

CBO puts $43 million price tag on federal courtroom cameras

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has issued its estimate of the cost for implementing S. 818, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2021. That bill would authorize federal judges to record and broadcast court proceedings as long as doing so would not violate the parties’ due process rights. The authorization would last for three years.

Recognizing that the vast majority of federal judges would likely decline the bill’s invitation to record proceedings, the CBO estimates that only 10% of courtrooms nationwide (about 200 courtrooms total) would be fitted with modern video equipment. Still, the CBO expects that it will cost about $75,000 to set up each courtroom, and another $50,000 annually to administer the program. In all, a rough estimate of $43 million would have to be expended between now and 2026, when the program would automatically sunset.

Forty-three million dollars is a staggering number to most people, especially since ordinary video recording technology is now relatively cheap and accessible. To be sure, there are security and privacy issues, but wow, that’s a lot of money for a program that doesn’t even have staying power.*

* Of course, the federal government once spent $100 million on unused plane tickets in a six-year stretch, so your perceptions may vary.

Two federal bankruptcy courts move to combat forum shopping

Mayer Brown’s blog, Real Bankruptcy Intel, explains:

Following the controversy surrounding Purdue[‘s careful filing of a bankruptcy petition designed to land specifically with Judge Robert Drain], as well as a lull in filings nationwide, in November, the SDNY elected to adopt a random case assignment system. Specifically, subdivision (f) of Local Bankruptcy Rule 1073-1 now states:

    1. Mega Chapter 11 Cases. Notwithstanding subdivision (a) of this rule, the Clerk shall assign a mega chapter 11 case to a Judge in the District by random selection irrespective of the courthouse in which the case is filed. A chapter 11 case qualifies as a mega chapter 11 case if the assets or liabilities of the debtor are equal to or greater than $100 million. A multi-debtor chapter 11 case qualifies as a mega chapter 11 case if the cumulative assets or cumulative liabilities of the filing debtors are equal to or greater than $100 million.[5]

Therefore, as of December 1, cases filed in the SDNY are to be assigned on a random basis to judges irrespective of the courthouse in which they are filed. As part of this rule, any SDNY judge can preside over a case in a courthouse where he or she is not usually assigned. Chief Judge Cecelia G. Morris explained that she hopes the adoption of this system will result in a more balanced utilization of judicial resources.[6] Judge Drain himself also commented that he “supported the change unanimously.”[7] Such adaptation now places the SDNY on par with the District of Delaware—another longstanding hotspot for mega chapter 11 cases—which already had a random assignment system in place. This move is likely to prevent debtors from “judge shopping” within the district.

Within a month of the SDNY’s announcement, the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (the district that contains Richmond and Alexandria) also implemented a similar rule.[8]

GAO questions judiciary’s system for prioritizing courthouse construction

Here is a very interesting example of the federal judiciary’s interdependence with the rest of the federal government. The responsibility for maintaining and operating the 420 federal courthouses across the country is shared by the judiciary, the U.S. Marshals Service, the General Services Administration, and the Federal Protective Service. And construction or maintenance of courthouses but also be authorized and funded by Congress, with oversight assistance from the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The upshot of this entanglement is that significant changes or improvements to federal courthouses must work their way through multiple layers of bureaucracy before anything gets done.

And so it is here. In 2008, after one significant wave of courthouse construction had been completed, the federal judiciary implemented an Asset Management Process (AMP) to prioritize courthouses most desperately in need of upgrades or new construction. Five years later, the GAO signed off on the process. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) then began the laborious task of assessing the condition of every federal courthouse in the country. By 2020, it had completed assessments of 385 courthouses, or 92 percent, with respect to security, space standards, functionality, the condition of judges’ workspaces, and the general condition of courtrooms and facilities. The judiciary assured the GAO that its assessments were accurate as of the time they were completed.

But the GAO was not satisfied. Asked to review the AO’s courthouse assessments, it concluded that several had become outdated and were therefore over- or under-prioritized for improvements. (For example, two courthouses were destroyed by recent hurricanes, yet their condition was not updated by the AO.) Yesterday the GAO issued a 62-page report outlining its concerns, as well as specific steps that the AO must take to improve the assessment process.

Some might look at the GAO as a necessary watchdog to make sure that the government does not spend money in the wrong places. Others might see this as wasteful bureaucracy run amok. The point here is simply that the business of operating courts is inextricably, and often invisibly to the public, tied to the demands, whims, and queries of many other actors. And that is interdependence in a nutshell.

Roberts to Congress: Thanks, but we’ve got it all under control

For 2022, the Chief Justice leans into an alternative view of judicial independence. Will it be enough to keep Congress at bay?

Chief Justice Roberts’s 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, dropped (as always) on New Years Eve, struck a more substantive and somewhat edgier tone than in years past. The Chief Justice identified three particular areas of focus for the Judicial Conference of the United States in the coming year: addressing financial disclosure and recusal obligations for federal judges, monitoring new mechanisms for reporting and stopping workplace harrassment, and preventing undue forum shopping in patent cases.

All three of these issues have been the subject of regular, and sometimes intense, Congressional scrutiny in recent years. But the Chief Justice’s report largely rejects the prospect of legislative fixes. Rather, consistent with the federal courts’ approach to the workplace harrassment scandal when it first broke in 2017, Roberts assures his readers that the Judicial Conference is willing and able to handle each of these issues internally. 

It’s not to see why the Chief Justice would go this route. As this blog has routinely described, the federal courts (like all courts, and indeed all organizations) operate under constant pressure from their external environments. Neoinstitutional theory identifies three types of pressure: coercive (the need to comply with legislation and other government mandates), mimetic (the need to be in line with similar institutions in order to maintain legitimacy), and normative (the need to adhere to social and professional norms). The federal courts face all three types of pressure, but are particularly susceptible to coercive and normative pressures. If the federal judiciary is not seen as ethical and apolitical, it will face Congressional action and lose legitimacy with the bar, the media, and the public. 

There is no question that the pressure has been turned up in recent weeks. The Wall Street Journal‘s expose on federal judges who failed to recuse from cases in which they held a financial stake was a significant blow to the judiciary, and has invited Congressional hearings. Some in Congress have used the scandal as an opportunity to resurrect additional transparency proposals, including courtroom cameras and free PACER access. And, of course, the progressive effort to pack the Supreme Court looms in the background, along with the ongoing politicization of judicial confirmation hearings and the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decisions on abortion and gun rights. It is fair to say that the federal courts are currently facing more external pressure and scrutiny than at any time since the 1960s. Continue reading “Roberts to Congress: Thanks, but we’ve got it all under control”

A roundup of interesting state court developments

Several interesting and important developments have taken place in state courts this past week. Among them:

  • The Chief Judge of the Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court announced that the court has a backlog of 3,000 cases that must be resolved by 2023. Nearly 90 percent of those cases are criminal matters. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to 89 percent of all court hearings being held remotely. 
  • New Hampshire has a new state court administrator. Dianne Martin was most recently the Chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and has worked in and with the state colurt system for nearly twenty years.
  • And Idaho’s state court administrator has been named in a federal lawsuit filed by Courthouse News Service, alleging that the state’s practice of posting new case filings impermissibly delays public and media access to new case information. Courthouse News Service has filed similar lawsuits against other court administrators in the past, each time alleging that the court’s default position should be to provide immediate electronic access once a matter is filed.

A tentative settlement in the PACER fee lawsuit?

Reuters reports that a settlement is brewing in the class action lawsuit alleging that the federal judiciary overcharged users for PACER access. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but after several years of litigation, including a trip to the Court of Appeals, it appears that the case may be coming to a private resolution in the next few months.

I shared thoughts on the PACER lawsuit, and the larger questions it poses for the court system, here.

What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?

Everyone wants the same thing and Congress seems ready to act. So why is the court system trying to keep legislation at bay?

Recently, I have been diving back into organizational theory — a set of theoretical frameworks about how organizations operate which inspired the creation of this blog in 2017. I have been particularly curious about the extent to which the behavior of courts and court systems — as opposed to individual judges — can be explained by external pressures from the courts’ environment. Although much of organizational theory began as a way of explaining the behavior of private firms, it has been extended to the public sector, and I am now convinced that it can profitably explain a wide range of court system behaviors.

Take a very recent example: the Wall Street Journal investigation this month, which revealed that more than 130 federal judges had presided over cases involving companies in which they owned stock. Such financial conflicts clearly require recusal, and while many (perhaps most) of the judges who did notJudge_Jennifer_Walker_Elrod recuse gave plausible explanations that they had simply failed to keep tabs on their trades, the situation has been highly embarrassing for the federal judiciary. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said that the report was “troubling” and that it was “carefully reviewing the matter.” And this week, Fifth Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod appeared before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee to reaffirm that the federal courts “have taken and will continue to take action to ensure ethical obligations, including recusal and reporting requirements, are met.”

Such assurances may not be be enough for Congress. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses to tighten recusal and reporting requirements. The Senate bill would also require the AO to develop a publicly accessible, searchable online database of judges’ financial disclosures. The federal court system therefore finds itself scrambling to avoid a legislative mandate by showing that it is able to police its financial conflicts internally. Even then, it may not be able to stave off new legislation.

This may seem like ordinary damage control. But the court system’s specific behaviors to date, and range of possible responses going forward, can also be understood through the lens of an organizational theory known as neo-institutionalism. And that theory suggests that the court system’s response is very deliberate and very calculated. Continue reading “What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?”

Does requiring jurors to be vaccinated raise due process concerns?

As part of their public safety planning in the wake of the pandemic, a number of courts across the United States are beginning to require that jurors for in-person trials be vaccinated against COVID-19. That is a perfectly sensible policy. But it raises complex ancillary issues about the makeup of the jury pool once unvaccinated — but otherwise eligible — citizens are excluded from jury service.

An editorial in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly articulates the problem:

Barring unvaccinated individuals could, in some parts of the state, make it more difficult to secure enough prospective jurors. It could also skew the jury pool, leading to more homogenous and less diverse juries. 

Generally speaking, vaccinated Americans are more likely to be older, female, white, college-educated and liberal in their political leanings, while unvaccinated Americans are more likely to be younger, conservative, male or people of color. 

In Massachusetts, statistics show that in cities such as Brockton, Lowell, Springfield and Worcester the percentages of Black and Hispanic individuals who are vaccinated are well under 50 percent, and the percentages of vaccinated individuals in their 20s are significantly lower than is the case for older people. 

As the editorial further notes, there is no constitutional bar to excluding unvaccinated individuals, since they are not being denied the chance to perform jury service on the basis of race, gender, religion, or another protected category. But it could skew the jury pool away from the reasonable cross-section of the community. 

There is also the perverse satisfaction that some might take in knowing that being unvaccinated gets them out of jury service. Perhaps such jurors should still be required to serve on virtual –or even outdoor — trials, if the demand for such proceedings continues.

Supreme Court to resume in-person arguments; live audio here to stay?

The Supreme Court has announced that it will resume in-person arguments starting in October. The number of people in the courtroom will be strictly limited.

The Court will apparently continue to provide live audio of the oral arguments, a welcome bit of transparency. In addition to giving the public immediate access to hearings, the audio feed has been paired with text and photos of the Justices to allow students to more fully appreciate the flow of oral argument. (Click here, then on the “Oral argument” button on the left, for an example from oyez.org.)

The return to in-person arguments raises one other question: will the Justices continue to ask questions one at a time (in order of seniority), as they did during the pandemic-mandated telephonic hearings? Or will they go back to interrupting each other (and counsel) every chance they get?