State courts confront budget shortfalls in wake of COVID

It should come as no surprise that state court systems, like state governments generally, are struggling to adapt to the financial pressures imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. For courts, COVID has meant the closing of courthouses, delays in trials and pre-trial hearings, rapid investment in technology infrastructure, mounting case blacklogs, and a surge in filings — particularly in those areas of the law most affected by economic dopwnturns (like contracts and consumer credit).

Now, as the calendar year turns over, state court administrators are preparing budgets for 2021, and the needs are staggering. And in many states, the extra money is simply not there. Indeed, as this Law360 story explains, a number of state courts expect that a relatively mild budget cut might be the best case scenario.

There are no easy answers. But we might learn from those state court systems that have developed (and are now able to draw upon) extensive rainy day funds, as well as using the current situation as an opportunity to reassess the most important priorities for the court systems and the communities they serve.

COVID complicates access to New York’s mental health courts

The New York Daily News has a very interesting feature on the Manhattan’s specialized mental health court, and the special challenges facing those who would like to use it during this pandemic-stricken era.

Only a handful of cases ever make it to Manhattan Mental Health Court, according to data provided by the district attorney — and that was before COVID-19 ground the city to a halt. On Friday, after tentatively opening some courtrooms for trials and hearings over the summer, the Office of Court Administration once again shut down most in-person proceedings, citing a recent surge in the virus.

Even pre-COVID, the mental health court moved at a plodding pace. In 2018, the office received 74 requests for referral. Of those, prosecutors consented to refer 43 cases — about 58% — and declined to refer the rest. In 2019, the office got 136 requests. They consented to 46 cases — about 34% — and declined to refer the remaining 90.

The office referred three cases this year before the court shutdown in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve cases were not referred to mental health court, though two of those were referred to another diversion court. Thirty-five are pending.

The whole story is worth the read, especially for those interested in how specialized state courts can make a difference in people’s lives — if they are accessible.

Western District of Pennsylvania to halt jury trials for three months

As COVID-19 cases begin to rise in the Pittsburgh area, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania has announced a halt to nearly all jury trials until at least February 8, 2021. Law.com explains:

The unavailability of health care workers, high-risk citizens, those who rely on now-limited public transit, “and those who will face substantial childcare challenges arising from the renewed closure of schools … creates a serious impact” on jury selection, the court said.

The situation would demand “ever-larger jury venire pools for potential service and potentially diminish … the representative nature of the pool of summoned jurors,” the court said.

For criminal defense lawyers, they are experiencing huge challenges in being able to communicate with their clients behind bars, a necessity for a fair defense, the order said.

Unfortunately, this is probably just the first of many orders that will similarly affect state and federal courts this winter.

In-person jury trials to resume in Brooklyn

For the first time in seven months, Brooklyn courts will begin to hold jury trials inside courthouses. A number of safety measures have been implemented, including temperature checks, plexiglass screens, and upgraded air filtration systems.

During the last several months, a number of courts worldwide held jury trials outdoors or in large, socially distanced venues. As winter approaches (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), trials will have no choice but to move indoors. Hopefully they prove to be safe and successful.

Judicial evaluations and the retention voter

I was interviewed extensively for this piece in Denverite about Colorado’s judicial performance evaluation (JPE) program. The primary takeaway is that voters should feel very comfortable with a program that works so hard to evaluate judges on the process (as opposed to the outcomes) of judging.

A number of states have excellent JPE programs, but not enough. Done properly, JPE benefits voters, the general public, and most of all the judges themselves. It should be part and parcel of every state and federal judicial program.

Scotland will hold jury trials in movie theaters

Courts across the world are continuing to think creatively in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some Scottish courts will now be holding socially distanced jury trials in movie theaters, where the 15-person juries can spread out, watch the presentation of testimony and evidence on the big screen, and then deliberate in person.

This follows similar efforts in the UK and US to use large open spaces for trials, including fairgrounds and convention centers. While we all look forward to the day when trials are back in a proper courtroom, the efforts to keep the wheels of justice turning are surely praiseworthy.

A bad look: Israel’s courts ask Google and Twitter to scrub news stories critical of judges

Ha’aretz reports that Israel’s Courts Administration has been asking Google, Twitter, and other social media and search sites to scrub selected stories that appear to be critical of Israeli judges. While some of the stories are apparently incomplete or inaccurate, others appear to be straightforward mainstream media reports in which one or more judges is directly criticized for official actions. From the story:

“In some cases, the Courts Administration didn’t inform the relevant media outlets that it had requested an article’s removal. Moreover, it never informed the Justice Ministry that it was trying to remove such articles, and its legal adviser, Barak Lazer, did not mention this fact when he briefed the Knesset on the task force’s work in 2018.

The task force was formed by former Supreme Court President Asher Grunis due to an increase in online attacks on judges, particularly on social media. Its job was to ask social media companies to remove offensive posts. It also warned the people who wrote them that if the posts weren’t removed, the Courts Administration may take legal action against them.

A Courts Administration official said the task force contacts Google only if a judge complains; it doesn’t go looking for problematic content online. But a senior Justice Ministry official said that this did not make its conduct acceptable.”

No, it doesn’t. Wow.

No, it doesn’t.

COVID’s silent victim in the courts: traditional due process

Gothamist has a really nice piece by Beth Fertig about socially distanced trials in a Brooklyn Housing Court. Even with Herculean efforts on the part of judges and court staff, these trials are a mess. Lawyers and clients cannot sit next to each other. Entire courthouses have been deemed too small to hold any trials. Members of the public cannot view the trial because of social distancing restrictions. It just feels…weird.

The story underscores how deeply procedural fairness is built into a traditional trial. Under ordinary circumstances, trials would be open to the public and the media. Parties would sit with their lawyers and confer with them throughout the process. In jury trials, simply being in the courtroom would place pressure on jurors to pay close attention to the arguments and evidence. Lawyers would be able to confront witnesses without any fear that they are being coached by someone off-camera. There would be a strong sense of both party involvement and public transparency.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts to choose strategies that weaken one or both of these values. In-person, socially distanced trials allow some form of party involvement, including confronting witnesses. But they forfeit much of the transparency that benefits both the public and the parties. By contrast, videoconferenced trials are more amenable to public view, but raise problems for parties who lack the proper technology, or whose homes are more chaotic or challenging than the august, stoic nature of the courtroom.

All this is to say that the sooner we can get back to regular courtroom proceedings, the better. And in the meantime, we should be more cognizant of the due process considerations that are already so carefully built into our traditional trial structure.

Fife et al. on state Chief Justice selection

Madelyn Fife, Greg Goelzhauser, and Stephen Loertscher have posted their article, Selecting Chief Justices by Peer Vote, to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

What characteristics do state supreme court justices prioritize when choosing leaders? At the federal level, collegial court chiefs are appointed or rotated by seniority. A plurality of states permit peer-vote selection, but the consequences of employing this mechanism are not well known. We develop a theory of chief justice selection emphasizing experience, bias, and politics. Leveraging within-contest variation and more than a half century’s worth of original contest data, we find that chief justice peer votes often default to seniority rotation. Ideological divergence from the court median, governor, and legislature is largely unassociated with selection. Justices who dissent more than their peers are, however, disadvantaged. We find no evidence of discrimination against women or people of color. The results have implications for policy debates about political leader selection.

This is a useful study, in that it suggests that state high courts are choosing their chief administrative officers (who are also often the face of the state judiciary) primarily on the basis of experience and interpersonal compatibility. To which I say, good.

ABA passes resolution on remote court proceedings

The American Bar Association House of Delegates has passed a resolution regarding the use of remote proceedings. The resolution attempts to balance the courts’ need to move forward with their dockets, parties’ entitlement to due process, and the public right to access. Some key points:

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that any authorization of mandatory use of virtual and remote court proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic continue for as short a time as possible and in no event longer than the duration of the declaration of emergency issued in the jurisdiction;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that use of virtual or remote court proceedings be permitted when litigants have consented to the use of such procedures, including being offered a delay until a safe, in-person proceeding can be held;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that all virtual or remote court proceedings be tailored to the needs of participants and take into account the type of case and proceeding to be conducted, the participants involved, and whether participants are likely to be represented by counsel…

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges that advance notice be provided to the public of all virtual or remote proceedings and that full and meaningful public access to such proceedings be guaranteed, while also protecting the privacy of those proceedings legally exempted from public access…

The entire resolution can be found here.