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.”

Ontario Court of Appeals allows livestreaming of carbon tax dispute

Ontario’s highest court is allowing livestreaming this week of an important case between the provincial government and Canada’s federal government over the latter’s imposition of a carbon tax. CBC cameras are being allowed to capture the arguments and share the broadcast with other media. These are the first televised arguments at the Ontario Court of Appeals since 2007. The first day of oral arguments can be found here.

Earlier this year, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal also allowed livestreaming in a case involving a provincial challenge to the carbon tax, underscoring the special nature of this litigation. The real lesson: don’t get too comfortable with cameras in Canadian provincial courtrooms; the practice is still remarkably rare.

Poland’s new “Disciplinary Office” is another political threat to judges

The relentless threats to the Polish judiciary from the state’s ruling “Law and Justice” party have taken yet another distressing turn. Just Security reports on the state’s new Disciplinary Office for Common Court Judges, designed to control and punish individual judges who stand up for the rule of law. As the article notes:

Together with the politicization of the Disciplinary Chamber, the message is clear for all members of the judiciary: follow the party line or face the consequences. Indeed, there are early indicators that most of the disciplinary actions taken against judges so far have targeted judges who have been outspoken on issues of judicial independence and the rule of law.

The Alien Terrorist Removal Court? What’s that?

The Alien Terrorist Removal Court (ATRC) is a special federal court, created by Congress in 1996 to review applications by the government for the removal of non-citizens who are suspected of being terrorists. It is populated by five federal district judges, who hold their position on that court in addition to their regular appointments.

Never heard of it? That’s not surprising, since the court has never met in its 23 years of existence. And that’s because the government itself has never once applied to the court to remove a resident alien suspected of terrorism. The judges on the court don’t even know where they would meet if an application was filed, since no specific courthouse has been designated for their deliberations.

Why has the court never been called into order? For one thing, its powers and jurisdiction are arguably unconstitutional:

“I honestly don’t know why it has not decided any cases, but there has been speculation that concerns about its constitutionality may have played a part,” said Robert F. Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia who is familiar with the court.

Turner, a national security expert, said when the government is dealing with permanent resident aliens, legitimate constitutional issues have been raised. He said he believes constitutional complaints concern secret evidence, like sensitive intelligence sources and methods that identified the individual as a terrorist, versus the Sixth Amendment’s right to see evidence and confront witnesses.

The Bristol Herald Courier has a terrific piece explaining the origins, administration, and constitutional challenges facing of one of the least-known courts in the country. Well worth the read!

Romania erupts with protests supporting judicial independence

Massive street protests erupted in the Romanian capital of Bucharest this weekend, after the country’s ruling Social Democrat party announced an emergency decree that would strip prosecutors of much of their power, and remove oversight of a prosecuting unit that investigates the judiciary. The party has alleged that the reforms are necessary to prevent “abuses” by the judiciary. Critics say the move is designed to intimidate judges and compromise judicial independence and the rule of law.

The country’s magistrates denounced the decree and staged their own protest on Friday, and the European Union has expressed “great concern” as well.

This has all the feel of the sham “reforms” put forth by Poland’s ruling party beginning in 2017. When any government undermines the rule of law, chaos is sure to follow.

Saskatchewan debates more extensive use of courtroom cameras

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal is allowing live streaming of an oral argument for the fourth time this week, in a case involving a challenge to Canada’s federal carbon tax. The event has reignited discussion about moving cameras into the trial courts. While this story’s headline suggests that the discussion is more developed than it actually is, it is nice to see increased recognition that courtroom cameras typically carry more benefits than risks.

Former Chief Justice of South Korea is indicted

Yang Sung-tae, the Chief Justice of South Korea from 2011 to 2017, has been indicted on a string of charges relating to abuse of power and dereliction of duty while in office. The charges include influencing politically significant trials under his watch, as well as punishing other justices who were critical of his actions.

From the Korea Herald:

One of the high-profile cases Yang is suspected of having influenced was a damages suit filed by Korean victims forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

Yang is suspected of having ordered senior officials at the NCA, the top court’s administrative body, to find ways to delay court proceedings for the case, mindful of the Park administration’s wishes to mend ties with Japan.

On Yang’s watch, the Supreme Court also allegedly collected inside intelligence from the Constitutional Court to keep it in check, covered up irregularities involving judges and interfered with the trial of Won Sei-hoon, a former spy chief accused of leading an online campaign to help then-presidential candidate Park Geun-hye win the 2012 election.

Yang has denied the accusations.

At least 100 other judges and legislators are also under investigation. Stay tuned.