In the last 15-20 years, court systems across the United States have slowly begun their own outreach in order to educate the public about their structure and their work. And there is good reason for the courts to take on this mission. The loss of robust civics education in many communities, combined with the flattening and sharpening effects of social media (which combine to eliminate much of the essential context and nuance from stories about the courts), means that court and judges are at increased risk of caricature.
One of the best programs originated in Colorado. Called “Our Courts Colorado,” it sends state judges to speak to schools and community groups about what exactly it is that the courts do. The program tries simultaneously to demystify the judicial system and to educate people about the important work of the courts.
The idea is spreading, slowly but surely, to other common law countries. New Zealand recently unveiled its own nine-minute video describing how the courts work. The video (also called “Our Courts”) is a little dry, but it has many subtle strengths. It shows judges in ordinary business dress, which humanizes them. It clearly explains the different levels within the court system, and the responsibilities of each court. And the video is available in three languages: English, Maori, and Mandarin.
Courts increasingly need to be their own advocates, and that includes assuring basic public familiarity with their work. This is a nice step forward in New Zealand.
The global media is starting to report on a horrific incident that took place in a Thai courtroom at the beginning of October. Judge Khanakorn Pianchana had just announced the acquittal of five criminal defendants accused of murder when he grabbed a handgun and shot himself in the chest. In a 25-page document explaining his actions, Judge Khanakorn claimed that he had been under political pressure from the ruling authorities to convict the defendants of murder, even though the evidence against the defendants was insufficient and obtained primarily through improper interrogation and detention measures.
Judge Khanakorn survived the shooting and is now recuperating from his injuries. But the incident has shaken Thailand. One issue is why he would take such a drastic step as to attempt suicide in the courtroom. Khanakorn himself explained that he could not ethically convict the suspects without adequate proof, but he knew his career would be destroyed if he exonerated them. Others, however, have postulated that Judge Khanakorn is suffering from extreme depression and related issues that prompted him to try to take his own life.
In any event, it is a stunning incident, and a sad moment for the judge and for the administration of justice.
The multi-year battle between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the state’s judiciary took another ugly turn this week, when it was revealed that deputy justice minister Lukasz Piebiak orchestrated a secret effort to blackball judges who were critical of the party. One of the main targets was Judge Krystian Markiewicz. According to reports, Piebiak and a woman known only as “Emilia” planned to anonymously send material with rumors about Markiewicz’s private life to his home, as well as regional branches of the judicial association Iustitia.
This section of the conversation transcript between Piebiak and Emilia is eyebrow-raising:
Emilia: I will talk to journalists and send letters, anonymously by email and also by post. The only problem is I don’t have addresses and emails. I will do everything I can, as always, but won’t vouch for the result. I hope they won’t jail me.
Piebiak: We don’t imprison people for good deeds.
With the story consuming the news, yesterday Piebiak tendered his resignation. This is an obvious black eye for the PiS with national elections coming in October. But given the party’s unrepentant attacks on the judiciary and the rule of law over the past four years, it’s hard to believe that any real lesson has been learned.
The Rio de Janiero State Court in Brazil will begin prosecuting corruption cases through special “faceless” courts designed to hide the identity of the presiding judges. It is the seventh Brazilian state to implement such a system. The change is coming after more than twenty judges received police protection from death threats by gangs and organized crime.
Under the new system, three judges will rotate every sixty days and all decisions will be signed by the principal judge. Variations of the system were used to protect judges in Colombia in the 1990s.
This is obviously an extreme development, and the safety of the judiciary must be taken seriously. But it comes at a serious cost — the accused will not be able to know the identity of, the very person who will be condemning them to prison (or worse). It’s a dark moment for everyone when due process must be diluted for the sake of judicial safety.
There has been quite a bit of shock this week over new French legislation that bans anyone from publicly revealing the pattern of judges’ behavior in court decisions. Article 33 of the Justice Reform Act would impose a prison sentence of up to five years for anyone who uses the identity of judges or magistrates “with the purpose or effect of evaluating, analyzing, comparing or predicting their actual or alleged professional practices.”
The law seems targeted to a growing number of legal analytics firms in France and elsewhere, which use technology to look for patterns in judicial decisions in order to predict future outcomes. But the law is written broadly, and could also apply to lawyers, legal academics, good government groups, and others who study the courts and judicial decisionmaking.
The new law is wildly disproportionate and draconian — five years in prison for simply analyzing publicly available documents? But the motivation behind it is more understandable than you might think. More after the jump.
Continue reading “Why did France just outlaw legal analytics?”
Changing the culture of a court–to promote efficiency, fairness, or dignified treatment of the parties–has been a program of serious study in the United States for at least half a century. But changing court culture is not merely a matter of changing judicial attitudes. All of the key players must share the new vision, including court staff, attorneys, and court users.
The trial courts in Vadodara, India are finding that out the hard way. Having declared that they will work through the summer to whittle down a docket of over 37,000 civil cases, the Vadodara courts were greeted with protests from some attorneys who had already made vacation plans. Those attorneys filed an “appeal” with the Gujarat High Court, seeking clarification that they in fact do not need to attend scheduled summer hearings. Among the reasons for seeking clarification: one hearing conflicted with an attorney’s personal naturopathy treatment.
India’s docket crisis is legendary and troubling. But judges cannot resolve these issues without the cooperation of the court system’s other key members.
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.”