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.
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.
I have been remiss in posting regularly about the assault by Poland’s ruling PiS party on the country’s judiciary. The problems began back in 2017, when President Andrzej Duda and his compatriots began intimidating and pressuring the state’s judiciary undet the guise of ferreting out the remnants of communism. The government’s efforts included a reform bill that gave the ruling party enormous power to select judges, an attempt at forced judicial retirement, and repeated acts of political intimidation.
The assault continued last year with the creation of a politically charged “Disciplinary Office” for judges whose rulings did not tow the PiS party line, and an effort by the deputy justice minister to blackball judges critical of the party.
Duda was elected to another term last month, and the capture of the state’s once-independent judiciary now appears to be sadly complete. The court system’s independence is now so in question that a Dutch court has refused to extradite a suspect back to Poland unless forced to do so by the European Union. A Reuters article provides more context:
Polish rule of law has become an increasing matter of dispute within the EU, as critics say the ruling nationalist government has undue influence over judicial appointments.
The International Chamber of Amsterdam’s District Court said it did not believe Polish courts were independent of government and it would not extradite the suspect until the EU Court of Justice told it to.
In April, the EU executive opened a case against Poland’s government over muzzling judges. That came after Poland had passed a new law making it possible to punish judges who criticize the system.
“These developments harm the independence of the Polish judiciary so much that it cannot operate independently of the Polish government and parliament,” the Dutch court said in a statement.
While Democrats are tactlessly trying to shame the Supreme Court and the President inanely attacks judges on Twitter, real problems of judicial independence are spreading around the world. Where is American leadership on this issue?
I am delighted to have a new essay up on JOTWELL, reviewing Amnon Reichman, Yair Sagy, and Shlomi Balaban’s recent article, From a Panacea to a Panopticon: The Use and Misuse of Technology in the Regulation of Judges. It’s a terrific look at the Israeli’s courts’ development of case management technology, and the impact of that technology on its judges, all told through a subtle organizational lens. A snippet from the start of the review:
Court systems are large, complex, diverse, and resource-dependent organizations, a condition that shapes their character and behavior. It is surprising, then, how often court leaders fail to account for the organizational perspective in their decisionmaking. Amnon Reichman, Yair Sagy, and Shlomi Balaban illustrate this phenomenon, showing how the visionaries behind Legal-Net, Israel’s cloud-based judicial management system, were plagued by their failure to place its development in a broader organizational context.
Reichman and his colleagues trace the Israeli courts’ development of Legal-Net over two decades. Their research reveals a court system brimming with confidence that technology could be used to regulate judicial behavior, but insufficiently appreciative of the challenges of technological integration. The first version of Legal-Net was a flop: complicated and ambitious, it was a poor fit with existing court culture. A subsequent version better accounted for the court system’s unique character, but court leaders failed to anticipate how significantly its implementation would affect that character. In fact, the authors explain, the introduction of Legal-Net “heralded a tectonic shift in the judiciary’s work culture and work patterns,” as judges tailored their behavior toward the system’s incentives and away from their traditional roles. Today, it seems, the Israeli courts work for Legal-Net as much as Legal-Net works for them.
Please read the whole thing!
I am no expert in the Japanese legal system, but I was intrigued by this article (in translation, from Nippon.com) which sets out some of the history and mechanics of the country’s judicial system. In particular, I was struck by how strongly the modern judiciary has been influenced by American occupation after World War II, both positively (adoption of the political question doctrine, overt commitment to judicial independence) and less positively (e.g., direct American interference in high profile cases in the immediate postwar years). I was similarly struck by the Japan’s embrace of bureaucratic approach to judging that is common in civil law systems across Europe and Latin America.
A good, relatively short read.
Israeli Supreme Court Justice Anat Baron has been assigned additional security detail after receiving a death threat in the mail over the weekend. The letter apparently made veiled reference to Justice Baron’s son, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2003.
This is grotesque and illegal behavior, and was immediately condemned by Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu himself has been accused of inciting this type of behavior, given his ongoing verbal attacks on the judiciary as he fights for his political life. The parallels to President Trump’s assaults on American judges are hard to ignore.
To be clear, neither Netanyahu nor Trump can possibly be said to wish physical harm to judges with whom they disagree. But rhetoric matters, and when politicians of any stripe wage war on the judiciary as part of their partisan battle plan, they do bear some responsibility for the collateral damage, both to judges’ reputations or (worse) to their physical well-being.
Courts worldwide are using videoconferencing technology for a wide range of proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic, including (in some instances) trials. And disturbing new ground was broken this past week, when a judge in Singapore sentenced a defendant to death by remote video. The defendant had been found guilty of participating in a drug deal, and Singapore has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to illegal drugs.
This is probably not the place or time to reflect on Singapore’s draconian criminal laws and sentencing practices. But regardless of where one falls on the capital punishment debate, there is something especially dehumanizing about receiving a death sentence through a video screen. The judge (or jury) should have to look the defendant in the eye–face to face–when assessing such a punishment.
American courts have been experimenting with Zoom sentencing, and in fact a federal district court is scheduled to sentence a white collar defendant by videoconference on June 4. But that defendant is based in France and is hoping to avoid prison time altogether; it is night and day when compared to the Singapore sentence.
(h/t John McCarthy)
The Times of Israel has a wonderful long-form piece on the decision of Israel’s High Court of Justice to open its proceedings to videocameras, just in time for a contentious political and legal fight over the proposed creation of a new unity government. The story explains how the High Court — facing charges that it had become increasingly political and therefore untrustworthy — decided to open its deliberations to public view. A snippet:
The fears of contamination and spectacle have been overtaken by growing frustration that the court’s story was being told by others, by right-wing critics and left-wing moralists, that no one was left in the public debate to defend the court on its own terms, to argue its deliberations were earnest and exacting and its concerns legal rather than political.
And so Chief Justice Esther Hayut embarked on a “pilot” project in mid-April to broadcast many of the court’s hearings and deliberations to the outside world — just in time for the most contentious and politically significant hearings in the nation’s recent history.
The result has been a revelation. For the first time, Israelis could watch the proceedings in their entirety. And according to the Government Press Office that managed the broadcast, about a million Israelis watched the deliberations on Sunday and Monday — 130,000 just through the GPO servers, and the rest via the live broadcasts on all three major television channels and multiple online news outlets.
They watched the justices push back against all sides, saw their frustration with the sloppiness and grandstanding of the left-wing petitioners and their pinpoint questions to the representatives of the right that forced unexpected compromises.
Again and again, the justices interrupted attorneys’ speeches prepared not for the courtrooms but for the cameras.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, for the viewer as much as the viewed.
The novel coronavirus is affecting societies worldwide, and judicial systems are no exception. Here is a selection of the latest news and profile stories on how courts are dealing with the epidemic:
What is the state of Israel’s courts in the time of coronavirus? (Jerusalem Post)
Uncertainty looms over Supreme Court as lower courts transition to teleconferencing (Washington Free Beacon)
Federal Judge’s Sentencing acknowledges COVID-19 (Forbes) (a story about the sentencing of certain defendants in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal)
COVID-19 and Online Dispute Resolution: It’s a Whole New World Out There (op-ed for the Connecticut Law Tribune)
7th Circuit suspends most paper copies to slow spread of COVID-19 (Chicago Daily Law Bulletin)
Previous roundup coverage here. And check the home page for additional discussion of coronavirus and the courts.
With coronavirus spreading worldwide, courts are increasingly closing their physical spaces and relying on video technology to keep the wheels of justice moving. The UK Supreme Court has equipped itself with high-definition cameras for livestreaming. In the US, both state and federal courts are effectively closing their courthouses and moving to videoconferencing for at least certain types of hearings.
Time will tell whether this shift portends a larger move to court-centered online dispute resolution, or whether courts will revert to their traditional courtroom operations once the health crisis is over. My sense is that it will be some of both. Courts are highly unlikely to jettison the social grandeur of the courthouse entirely, and of course no video can replace the physical intimacy of a jury trial or an evidentiary hearing. At the same time, courts would be wise to use this moment as an opportunity to craft a form of public online dispute resolution for appropriate types of cases — a form of resolution that is as (or more) effective, cheaper, and more trustworthy than private ODR.
There will be much more to say in this story as it develops. Stay healthy and sane, everyone.