In Memoriam: Mark Cady

The legal world has been shocked by the sudden death of Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady on Friday. Chief Justice Cady joined the Iowa Supreme Court in 1998 and became Chief Justice in 2011. He was best known for authoring the court’s unanimous opinion in Varnum v. Brien (2009), which declared that prohibitions on same-sex marriage were barred by the Iowa Constitution. Voter dissatisfaction with that decision led to three of Cady’s colleagues not being retained the following year, which (ironically) opened the door for Cady to become Chief Justice in 2011.

Chief Justice Cady is being remembered as a splendid jurist and a dedicated public servant. That was certainly my impression of him on the one occasion I was able to meet him. The court system and public have lost a thoughtful, compassionate, and highly intelligent judge and leader.

The Iowa Supreme Court will take the time to appropriately grieve the loss of its chief justice (and indeed, it has already postponed oral arguments scheduled for this week). At some point, however, the court will also need to turn back to the more mundane task of filling his seat. Members of the court will choose the new chief justice themselves, but not until a new justice has been appointed. That process involves initial review of candidates by a 17-member nominating commission, with the final selection in the hands of the state’s governor, Kim Reynolds. The Des Moines Register has a good primer on the process here.

Deepest condolences to the family and friends of Chief Justice Cady.

California’s federal judicial vacancies come to the forefront

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.

U.S. Courts seek information on cloud services

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.

New bill would increase disclosures regarding federal judicial travel

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.

Iowa courthouse break-ins were arranged by … the Iowa courts?

“This has been quite an odd case,” said one state senator.

Last month, two men were arrested for breaking into the courthouse in Dallas County, Iowa. The same men were charged with burglarizing the Polk County courthouse around the same time. Now it has come to light that they were hired by the state court administration in order to test courthouse security.

The men apparently broke into the Polk County courthouse after hours on one occasion, then had to break back in after they realized they had left some things behind. They were not caught until the third break-in in Dallas County. Last week, Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady admitted that they had been hired by the court system itself, which had proceeded without notifying law enforcement or any other governmental branch.

Chief Justice Cady apologized for the snafu, and stated that the court system and the security company had “differences in interpretations” of the security company’s contract.

A swap of judges to keep the machinery of justice moving

This is an interesting story from Owensboro, Kentucky. Judge Joe Castlen retired from the local Circuit Court, but agreed to keep working in his position until a new judge could be elected to take his place. And although the election will not take place until next month, we already know the winner: District Judge Lisa Payne Jones, who is the only candidate on the ballot.

Jones’s inevitable ascension to the Circuit Court leaves a hole on the District Court, and the process of filling that seat might take some time. So Judge Castlen, who previously served on the District Court, agreed to fill that seat again until a successor is found — meaning effectively that he will swap places with Judge Jones.

Good for Judge Castlen for agreeing to take on the new role so that the District Court can keep up with its docket. It’s an elegant, if temporary, solution to a curious staffing problem.

Committee work — it’s not just for academics

With the start of its new fiscal year today, the Judicial Conference of the United States announced the chairs of several of its internal committees. Some of the chairs are new, and others are current leaders who will be retained for another year. The full press release is here.

Although the announcement is relatively pedestrian, it provides a wonderful insight into the inner workings of the federal court system. The names of the committees themselves are suggestive of the range of work that takes place outside of the eye of the general public: The Committee on Information Technology, the Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction, The Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability, and the Committee on Space and Facilities, among others.

The Committees are headed by, and mostly populated by, federal judges — the same judges that are managing complex dockets, holding trials and hearings, handling emergency motions, drafting detailed opinions, sentencing convicted felons, and otherwise addressing the judicial work that flows into their chambers daily. The Chief Justice hand-picks each member of each Committee — not just the chairs — and asks each member to take on additional administrative duties for the good of the overall court system. And like all committee work, it seems, the most effective and efficient members are asked to stay longer and do more.

Professors notoriously complain about their own committee work, which takes them away from class preparation, research, and writing (not to mention family). But most still take on the work cheerfully for the good of their respective schools. Judges are no different, and their service in this area is commendable.

Congratulations to all the new chairs.