Minnesota’s federal court will continue with Zoom trials even after COVID

In an interview with Law360, Chief Judge John Tunheim of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota said that his district will continue with civil trials over Zoom even after the coronavirus pandemic no longer makes them necessary. A snippet of the interview:

Our plan at this point is to resume jury trials, and in-person hearings to the extent necessary, on May 3. All of our staff will be vaccinated and beyond the two-week period following the second shot, so we think that by May 1 we should be in pretty good shape for jurors coming in.

I do plan to continue, and urge our other judges to continue, to do as many hearings on Zoom as possible. It’s worked really, really well, and we’re still not in a position where we want a lot of people coming into the courthouse.

I think using Zoom is a very effective tool for bench trials. For jury trials it’s a little more complicated, as we know. But we have a backlog of civil cases that we’re probably not going to get to right away because of the criminal case backlog. We are, for the time being, using only two courtrooms, one in Minneapolis, one in St. Paul, both with substantial amounts of plexiglass. Only using two courtrooms makes it hard to catch up.

I expect to see much more along these lines in the coming weeks and months.

Biden tips his hand on the next Supreme Court nominee

Keep an eye on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the newest nominee to the D.C. Circuit.

Ketanji Brown JacksonPresident Biden has issued his first list of intended judicial nominees, mostly to federal district courts across the country. They are a highly accomplished and — as best I can tell — highly qualified group of nominees. 

Perusing the list, I’m going to call my shot now and predict that whenever an opening on the Supreme Court occurs, the  President’s first nominee will be Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Judge Jackson is already a well-respected federal district judge, and is set to be nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She therefore follows the path of other budding judicial stars who were elevated to the circuit courts before an eventual Supreme Court nomination by the same president. (Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the most recent example.) Judge Jackson also checks all the boxes: she is brilliant, accomplished, hard-working, well-respected, relatively young, and (important for Biden’s camp, at least) a Black woman. She is also kind, professional, and gracious — at least that is the clear memory I have from the time we overlapped as litigation associates at Goodwin Procter nearly twenty years ago.

Predictably, much of the mainstream media is focusing on the race and gender of the nominees, rather than their exceptional talent and qualifications. This does a remarkable disservice both to the nominees and the public. It reduces a lifetime of individual hard work, achievement — and yes, most assuredly some luck — to a crass demographic calculation. And it communicates that their skills and abilities are secondary to their immutable characteristics, a message that can only reduce confidence in judicial decisions and the court system as a whole.  

Congratulations to all the nominees. The country will better off with your skill and talent filling our open judgeships.

Portland’s federal courthouse attacked again

The Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, which sustained significant damage in last summer’s Antifa riots, was attacked again over the weekend — just three days after federal officials removed the non-scalable fencing that had surrounded the courthouse since August. (The fencing has since returned.)

As shown in the video directly below, vandals broke courthouse windows and covered the building with obscene graffiti.

 

The Oregonian has a powerful article chronicling the damage, not only the the physical building but also to the public psyche.

Among the graffiti left on the front of the courthouse was a message that said in red, “NAZI’S WORK HERE.”

“As a first generation American whose parents lived through the horrors of World War II, in England and in Norway, you can’t say anything more offensive than alleging that the people who work inside that building, who I know and love, are Nazis,” Acting U.S. Attorney Scott Asphaug said Sunday.

“That building represents justice,” he said. “This is where people come to have their civil rights heard.”

The staff, attorneys and judges have continued to conduct courthouse operations throughout the past year’s mass protests, and will continue to do so undeterred, Asphaug said. Asphaug said he supports the rights of people to protest and make their voices heard but doesn’t support riotous behavior and the damage to the courthouse.

“The people who work in that building are a lot stronger than graffiti and broken windows,” he said, “and they’ll continue to do the important work they do.”

Anerican institutions may be imperfect, but they are grounded in time-honored truths about the value of liberty, opportunity, and equality. Their assailants, by contrast, are little more than common thugs and intellectual frauds.

More fallout from the Solar Winds hack

After last month’s revelation that the federal court system was among the victims of the Solar Winds cyberhack, leaving thousands of sensitive documents in the hands of Russian hackers, members of Congress are now demanding answers about the extent of the fallout. As one story notes:

Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse, Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons, Mazie Hirono, and Cory Booker all signed on to a letter to the chief information officer at the Department of Justice and associate director of the administrative office of the U.S. Courts on Jan. 20 demanding a hearing on the changes and the potential access of court documents by the hackers.

“We are alarmed at the potential large-scale breach of sensitive and confident records and communications held by the DOJ and AO, and write to urgently request information about the impact and the steps being taken to mitigate the threat of this intrusion,” the senators wrote.

It’s not immediately clear to me why all of the signatories are Democratic senators. Perhaps it’s more pointless partisanship from a deeply dysfunctional Senate Judiciary Committee. But cybersecurity for the courts should be a bipartisan concern, and one can only hope that it will be treated as such.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has alraedy announced a plan to maintain sensitive filings on paper for the foreseeable future. We’ll see what develops in the coming weeks.

 

What should we expect of Biden when it comes to the judiciary?

The new administration is borrowing from Trump’s playbook, not Obama’s.

Three weeks into the Biden administration, the new President’s approach to the judicial branch is coming into focus. It looks a lot like that of his immediate predecessor, with a heavy focus on appointing federal judges and advancing court-related policies that satisfy the ruling party’s ideological litmus test.

Biden entered the White House with only 46 vacancies on the federal bench, and several pending nominations remaining from Trump’s final weeks. But when the runoff elections in Georgia produced a 50-50 Senate and the ability of Vice President Harris to serve as a tiebreaker, the calculus on judicial appointments changed. The White House rescinded all of the pending Trump-era nominations and put out a call for its own nominees. More conspicuously, progressive activists and academics began urging older federal judges to take senior status, a designation which would keep them on the bench with a reduced caseload, but which (more importantly) would open additional vacancies at the district court and circuit court level.

Biden last week also rejected any formal role for the American Bar Association in pre-vetting federal judicial nominees, a stunning move for a Democratic President. The ABA’s process focuses on a nominee’s ideologically neutral qualifications, like experience and temperament. For generations, its ratings of nominees has served as an additional quality check — and since most nominees are deemed qualified or well-qualified, an additional stamp of approval that can help with Senate confirmation. When Donald Trump rejected the ABA’s vetting role in early 2017, I described the action as an “unforced error.” And indeed, it was — the ABA continued to vet the nominees even without the President’s blessing, and identified a handful of candidates who were plainly unqualified for the federal bench. Rejecting the ABA four years ago opened the door for criticism that Trump’s nominations were based more on ideology than skill and competence; rejecting it now will open the identical door for Biden. Continue reading “What should we expect of Biden when it comes to the judiciary?”

Defendant seeks delay of major patent trial due to COVID

The primary defendant in a major patent case pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware has requested a delay of its scheduled trial due to concerns about conducting an in-person trial while COVID-19 rages on.

3G Licensing sued LG Electronics and others more than four years ago, alleging infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,212,662. The patent concerns a method and devices for detecting transmission errors in data streams. Trial is scheduled for April, but in a letter to the court LG’s counsel worried about the ability to get a representative jury in the midst of a pandemic.

Courts have struggled to deal with trials during the coronvirus surge, with most delaying in-person trials or attempting to conduct them over video. Notwithstanding tireless efforts to assure due process and transparency for all parties, reactions to the videoconferenced trials have been mixed. At some point this year, courts should return in earnest to in-person trials (and will likely have a serious backlog to deal with). But it’s not fully clear whether that moment will come as soon as April.

Another federal courthouse attacked by a mob

Violent Antifa mobs in Seattle and Portland attacked a number of government buildings on Inauguration Day, including the William Kenzo Nakamura Courthouse in downtown Seattle.

(Photo from Seattle Police Twitter feed.)

Seattle’s roving band of thugs are no doubt wholly ignorant of William Kenzo Nakamura, an American hero who lost his life fighting for the 42d Regimental Combat Team in Italy in World War II. He was hailed for his extraordinary bravery, and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and, later, the Medal of Honor.

These domestic terrorists also set fires and damaged private businesses. Make no mistake: they are as dangerous and evil as the rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.

When similar riots engulfed the Pacific Northwest last summer — disrupting businesses, injuring innocent bystanders, and destroying Portland’s federal courthouse — state and local officials only made excuses for the violence. Will these cowardly politicians finally stand up for the citizens they took an oath to protect? Will the Biden Administration work to assure the safety of the federal employees who work in the courthouse and the members of the public who enter it?

Cybersecurity breach affected federal courts

The SolarWinds cybersecurity breach that affected several federal agencies and private tech companies last month apparently also infiltrated the federal court system, according to reports. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts yesterday announced additional safeguards to protect sensitive court records. According to the AO’s press release,

Under the new procedures announced today, highly sensitive court documents (HSDs) filed with federal courts will be accepted for filing in paper form or via a secure electronic device, such as a thumb drive, and stored in a secure stand-alone computer system. These sealed HSDs will not be uploaded to CM/ECF. This new practice will not change current policies regarding public access to court records, since sealed records are confidential and currently are not available to the public.

Shades of the cyberattack that hit the Texas courts earlier this year. That involved ransomware, but it equally exposed the courts’ vulnerabilities involving modern technology

James Duff to leave AO

James Duff, the longtime Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, will retire from that position on January 31. Duff served two stints as Director, from 2006-2011 and again from 2015 to the present. During his tenure, he has brought many significant improvements to the federal courts system’s internal operations and external relationships, including overseeing the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct and helping the courts quickly adjust to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Not every initiative on Duff’s watch has been a success — the effort to bar judges from associating with the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society was ill-advised from the start — but overall Duff has helmed the AO with a steady hand and extraordinary competence and vision.

Chief Justice Roberts has appointed U.S. District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf as the new AO Director. She will be the first woman to lead the AO in its 81-year history. We wish her the best in the new position.

John J. Parker’s failed Supreme Court nomination

Columnist Ray Hill at The Knoxville Focus has been running an interesting multi-part series on the nomination of Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court in 1930. Judge Parker, who was serving on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, would narrowly lose his confirmation vote due to the complex political alignments of the era. He would continue to serve on the Fourth Circuit until his death in 1958.

Parker has long been an interesting character from the perspective of federal court organization and administration. A politician before he began his judicial career, Parker was very closely tied to the leadership of the American Bar Association, and was one of the principal architects of the “Queen Mary Compromise” which created the modern Judicial Conference of the United States. (Interested readers can learn more here.)

Ray Hill’s pieces paint a vivid history of the Parker nomination, from the surprise opening on the Court occasioned by Justice Edward Sanford’s untimely death (after a routine dental appointment), to the rift within the Republican Party, to the shifting political demographics of the South. Although all four parts collectively feel repetitive at times, it’s a valuable overview of a fascinating moment in history.

The four parts of the series can be found here, here, here, and here.