On reforming the Supreme Court

Russell Wheeler at the Brookings Institution has taken a detailed look at the various proposals to reform the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, from court-packing to term limits. He provides a short history of each proposal (including potential legal stumbling blocks). Most importantly, he determines that at this time, the American public has no real taste for Supreme Court reform — the most significant stumbling block for any court proposal.

Wheeler concludes:

That reasonable people are even debating these proposals speaks to the degradation of the federal judicial appointment process at all levels, a decline that has been building steam for several decades. The once near-ministerial task of appointing and confirming federal judges has stretched from one or two months into sometimes year-long ordeals, even for non-controversial nominees.

Both parties have undermined the guard rails that that once pushed presidents and senators to seek judicial candidates within some broad mainstream of ideological boundaries, even allowing for occasional outliers. Democrats killed the filibuster for most nominees, and Republicans finished it off for Supreme Court candidates and, to boot, ended the home-state senator (of either party) veto of circuit nominees that Republican senators exploited relentlessly to block Obama administration appointees.

Pack-the-court proposals that would normally seem bizarre are understandable in today’s partisan climate. If the federal judiciary becomes a 21st century version of the 1930s judiciary that thwarted a popular push for change, they may even become necessary.

I don’t think we are anywhere near that level, despite the hysteria created by left-leaning partisans and academics. While Republican presidents have appointed more Justices, and while the justices serve longer, on average, than they ever did before, the leftward policy drift of many Republican appointees over time tends to keep the Court much more balanced than it might seem at the time of a Justice’s confirmation.

The battle over the Court is, in my mind, partially a spillover from the current partisan battles in the other branches and partially a reaction to the Republican Party’s successful focus on judicial appointments since the Reagan administration. When bipartisanship in Congress has eroded as badly as it has, it seems inevitable that both parties will seek to punish each other to the extent they can in the realm of judicial nominations. And the undeniable success of Republican administrations in populating the federal courts over the past forty years has left Democrats in a state of agitation, bordering on desperation.

I do not know if and when some sense of bipartisan responsibility and decorum will return to Congress. But until then, radical proposals to reform the Court are likely to constitute ongoing collateral damage.

More evidence of the emotional strain of judging

I have previously blogged about the mental health challenges that judges face. Daily confrontations with purveyors of extreme violence, sexual abuse, child abuse, and various other forms of reprehensible human behavior unquestionably take their toll. Having to make difficult decisions that directly impact the lives of fellow citizens creates an additional, and significant, layer of stress. High-profile cases, and the unwanted media and political attention that accompany them, also contribute. Judges can also face stresses that are not unique to the judicial workplace, such as long hours, heavy workloads, and insufficient resources.

A new study from the American Bar Association drives the point home. It found that nationwide, the top ten sources of judicial stress were, in order:

  • Importance/impact of decisions
  • Heavy docket of cases
  • Unprepared attorneys
  • Self-represented litigants
  • Same parties repeatedly, but not addressing underlying issues
  • Public ignorance of courts
  • Long hours of work without break
  • Hearing contentious family-law issues
  • Isolation in judicial service
  • Insufficient support staff

The study also revealed that a little over 2% of judges have contemplated suicide.

Mental health awareness is growing in the American workplace, including the courthouse. It’s a welcome development.

Collins on Problem-Solving Courts

Erin Collins (Richmond) has posted a new article, The Problem of Problem-Solving Courts, which looks at the origins of problem-solving courts and questions whether they are really meeting their stated goals. (Problem-solving courts are criminal courts designed to address the unique needs of a specific group of offenders, like drug courts or veterans courts.)

Her conclusion (from the abstract) is quite interesting:

This Article … contends [that] problem-solving courts do effectively address a problem — it is just not the one we think. It argues that these courts revive a sense of purpose and authority for judges in an era marked by diminishing judicial power. Moreover, it demonstrates that the courts have developed and proliferated relatively free from objective oversight. Together, these new insights help explain why the problem-solving court model endures. They also reveal a new problem with the model itself — its entrenchment creates resistance to alternatives that might truly reform the system.

It’s an intriguing article that will cause me to think more carefully about the proliferation of problem-solving courts across the country.

Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe Judge Joan Larsen, of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to be a prime candidate to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy should another seat open up during the Trump Administration. Late last year, Judge Larsen delivered the Sumner Canary Memorial Lecture at Case Western Reserve Law School in Ohio, and that school’s law review has just published her remarks.

The lecture is a short and valuable exposition on the often nuanced relationship between state and federal courts–something Judge Larsen knows well. I highly recommend the entire piece to the reader. But a couple of points she made struck me as particularly interesting from an organizational perspective.

Continue reading “Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System”

Is the Supreme Court rethinking the federal courts’ mission?

My latest piece for the New England Law Professors blog takes a look at the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Home Depot, Inc. v. Jackson, and asks whether the Court is quietly reevaluating the mission of the federal court system.

Give it a read, and while you’re there, check out the wonderful posts by my colleagues in areas as widespread as criminal law, immigration law, and constitutional law.

Want a lighter sentence? Wait for your birthday

That’s the bottom line of this fascinating study by Daniel Chen and Arnaud Philippe. The authors looked at more than four million sentencing decisions in France, and another 600,000 in the U.S. federal courts. They found that French sentences are 3% shorter, and U.S. federal sentences are 33% shorter in the day component, when the defendant is celebrating a birthday. (Month components were unaffected.) The authors also found that in the U.S. courts, significant birthday leniency exists only where the defendant and the judge share the same race.

I am always cautious about making too much of one study, but there certainly seems to be some basis for the authors’ conclusion that “social norms transmitted through rituals can perversely lead to unfair or incorrect decisions in important situations even when professional norms have been designed to mute them.”

Judicial elections in the #MeToo era

I am pleased to announce that my article, Judicial Recall and Retention in the #MeToo Era, has been published in the latest issue of Court Review. It is part of a symposium issue on the recall election of Judge Aaron Persky in California last June.

The article identifies strong similarities between the efforts to recall Judge Persky and later efforts to prevent the retention of Judge Michael Corey in Alaska and Justice Carol Corrigan in California. As I explain in the article, the parallels are troubling because recall elections and retention elections historically developed at different times and for different reasons. The utilization of recall tactics in retention elections is therefore a worrisome development.

Court Review is the official journal of the American Judges Association. I recommend the entire issue for anyone interested in the Persky saga and lessons that may be drawn from it.