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 Asked to review the AO’s courthouse assessments, it concluded that several had become outdated and were therefore over- or under-prioritized for improvements.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? 

Indian state rolls out mobile “e-court” vans to service rural areas

Uttarakhand, a state in northern India, is planning to introduce wifi-equipped “e-court” vans in five remote hill communities. The vans will have videoconferencing capability and will be administered by the district judges of the state.

The initial story provides few specifics about how the mobile courts will operate, what types of cases will be eligible, and exactly how the vans will be able to accommodate the presentation of evidence and the opportunity for transparent proceedings. What seems clear is that the effort is designed to chip away at a shocking large — and growing — backlog of cases in the state. 

India has an unfortunate history of extensive case backlogs, and this creative effort to improve that circumstance should be applauded. I hope it is successful.

India develops rules for live-streaming court proceedings

The E-Committee of the Supreme Court of India has developed a set of draft rules for live-streaming and recording court proceedings. The draft rules are open for public comment through June 30.

The draft rules exclude a number of case types, including many related to family law, gender-based violence, and cases which “in the opinion of the Bench may provoke enmity amongst communities likely to result in a breach of law and order.” Parties will also have a chance to object to livestreaming in advance.

Federal cases take about a year to resolve on average — but don’t read too much into that average

The Juris Lab has a nice, approachable statistical overview of federal civil case disposition over the past twenty years. It notes that the “average” case takes about 344 days from filing to termination, although that number varies widely depending on case type, jurisdiction, and nature of disposition. (Cases ending in a trial verdict take another year to resolve on average.)

The oveview does not attempt to account for all the variation in disposition time, and does not even mention obvious factors like judicial vacancies, complex procedural settings like MDLs, the influence of ADR on filings, CJRA-style reporting pressure, or settlement pressure. But it is still very useful.

I have only recently come across The Juris Lab, which aims to wed legal issues with big data. It seems like a promising site, and worth checking out on a regular basis.