California approves plan to allow judges to comment on their own (and others’) decisions

The California Supreme Court has approved a change to its Code of Judicial Ethics, which would allow state judges to publicly comment on pending proceedings, including their own decisions and decisions of their colleagues. The most important change is to Canon 3B(9) and associated comments. The amended Canon now reads, in pertinent part:

In connection with a judicial election or recall campaign, this canon does not prohibit any judge from making a public comment about a pending proceeding, provided (a) the comment would not reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of the proceeding, and (b) the comment is about the procedural, factual, or legal basis of a decision about which a judge has been criticized during the election or recall campaign.

These changes have been in the works for some time, a reaction to the ugly 2018 campaign to recall state judge Aaron Persky. The sentiment is understandable, given that judges who produce unpopular decisions are sitting ducks in an election when they cannot even respond to unfair or oversimplified attacks by their antagonists. Permitting judges to at least clarify the context of their decisions, or to comment on the overall qualifications of a fellow judge whose career is being reduced to a single decision, may prevent voters from removing a judge rashly.

But there is still reason to be worried about whether this change will work for the better. Now that judges are permitted to comment on pending proceedings, they have less of an excuse to not comment when pressed by the media or an election opponent. Some judges might feel pressure to comment even when they do not want to do so. Others might choose not to comment and find themselves under pressure to justify that decision. Put differently, in some ways the original canon was cleaner because judges had no choice but to remain silent. Now they have more freedom, and that can be a blessing and a curse.

The new rules go into effect July 1. It will be a development worth watching.

 

A reverse judicial cascade!

I have written before about judicial nomination cascades: situations in which a sitting judge is appointed to another court, leaving another vacancy on the judge’s original court. Usually, cascades move in a single direction: trial judges are appointed to appellate courts, or intermediate appellate judges to courts of last resort.

But this week, Massachusetts initiated a rare reverse judicial cascade when Justice Edward McDonough, Jr., who is currently on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, was nominated for a seat on the Massachusetts Superior Court, which is the state’s general jurisdiction trial court. Judge McDonough previously served on the Superior Court from 2013 to 2017.

Judge McDonough’s long career as a trial lawyer suggests a high level of comfort with the trial bench, and it is inspiring to see judges who prefer the hurly-burly of the trial courts over the more sanitized settings of the appeals court. Assuming the appointment is successful, it will be interesting to see who Governor Charlie Baker nominates for the vacancy created on the Appeals Court.

 

A brief history of New Jersey Supreme Court appointments

The New Jersey Globe has put together a useful series of articles on gubernatorial appointments to the state supreme court since 1947. Garden Staters and those interested in the court’s history (and its political dimensions) should take notice.

Alfred Driscoll’s First Seven Picks

The Meyner Court

The Cahill Court

The Byrne Court

The Kean Court

The Whitman Court

The McGreevy and Corzine Courts

The Christie Court

 

Kansas senate rejects state appellate nominee on flimsy grounds

Kansas’s senate has rejected Governor Laura Kelly’s nominee for an opening on the state court of appeals. Carl Folsom, a longtime public defender, experienced appellate advocate, and adjunct professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, was turned down on a close vote, on the grounds that he lacks civil litigation experience.

Give me a break. Folsom is well-respected and highly experienced in both the criminal and appellate arenas. He is familiar with the very court for which he was nominated, having argued many cases before that court over the years. His lack of direct civil experience is a non sequitur — he certainly appears capable of filling that knowledge gap. Unlike a trial court, where a judge must make snap decisions regarding procedure and evidence, and where prior experience is absolutely essential, an appellate judge has a bit more time to educate himself and ruminate on the issues.

This is plainly a political move, brought on by a conservative senate at war with a Democratic governor. GOP Senators were likely disturbed by the fact that Folsom had donated money to Kelly’s gubernatorial campaign, and had advocated for some traditionally liberal issues. But so what? Folsom is a private citizen and is entitled to support his favored candidates and causes. There is nothing I have seen to suggest that he would not perform his judicial duties fairly and honorably.

Courts suffer when the other branches of the government play politics with judicial nominations. The people of Kansas deserve better than this transparently political ploy.

Nevada judicial candidate accused of effectively impersonating a sitting judge

Nevada has a long and storied history of dreadful judicial campaigns, lagging perhaps only New York and Illinois in overall election dysfunction. As one relatively recent example, three years a Las Vegas judge falsely claimed the endorsement of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a badly photoshopped advertisement.

The latest questionable developments come in the form of two complaints filed with the state judicial review board by current judicial candidates, alleging that some of their opponents have violated various campaign and ethics rules. The more intriguing of the two complaints alleges that Family Court candidate Margaret Pickard posted a video to Facebook in which she sat on the bench in a courtroom in an outfit closely resembling a judicial robe — intimating, incorrectly, that she was already an incumbent judge.

Ms. Pickard did not actually don a judicial robe for her ad, but her dress is strikingly similar to a judicial garment. In any event, I will let readers decide for themselves.

COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going

A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.

It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.

Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”

Federal court delays trial in Alabama judicial election case

A federal district court has delayed the trial in a challenge to Alabama’s method to selecting state appellate judges. The trial, originally scheduled to begin in August, was removed from the trial list in light of complications posed by social distancing and the coronavirus.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports:

The lawsuit alleges that the state’s method of electing appellate judges dilutes the voting strength of black voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The seven Supreme Court justices are elected statewide to eight-year terms, while the 12 Appeals Court judges are elected from seven districts, five of which elect two members.

Attorneys for the state asked Moody in August to dismiss the case, arguing that “justice should not be administered on the basis of race, and Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] does not require this court to fundamentally reshape the Arkansas judiciary.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs responded that the Act was enacted for “the broad remedial purpose of ridding the country of racial discrimination in voting,” including state judicial elections.

The delay was necessitated because social distancing practices had severely hampered the parties’ ability to conduct discovery. The judge did not foreclose certain discovery practices from continuing, however, and has ordered the parties to meet electronically and work out a time frame for handing over certain election data.

A Voting Rights Act challenge to state judicial voting districts was also raised in Louisiana back in 2014, resulting a trial verdict for the plaintiffs.

Texas court orders new judicial election after ballot error

A Texas state judge has ordered a new election for the Seventh Court of Appeals, after Republican primary candidates were left off the ballot in two counties last month. The successful challenge was brought by incumbent Larry Doss, who lost the primary.

Amarillo attorney Steven Denny, who was originally the winner based on the March 3 results, said he was disappointed with the results but understood the court’s reasoning. Denny also said he is concerned about how the rescheduled date could disenfranchise voters who cast ballots in the original elections.

“Although 1,200 voters in those two counties did not get a vote on this particular race, it is entirely likely with the dismal turnout in runoff elections compounded with the COVID-19 scare that we could have fewer than 10,000 voters in the new election, which would disenfranchise the other 80,000 that voted in the original election,” Denny said.

With Wisconsin proceeding with its state primary today after an unsuccessful legal challenge to postpone in light of the COVID-19 crisis, it will be interesting to see how states and localities thread the needle of public health and election participation.

Judicial qualifications and the modern political calculus

As Jordy Singer points out in Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now, his response to my recent post, “[i]n states in with nominating commissions, conscientious governors, and reasonable judicial turnover,” the kind of careful judicial selection practiced in Massachusetts and Colorado “is possible. But it doesn’t work that way in most states, and certainly not at the federal level.”

I don’t disagree with this assessment. One difference, though, is that, while it doesn’t work in most states as it does in Massachusetts or Colorado due to the state’s constitutional or statutory design, the process of judicial selection at the federal level—at least, at the level of the Supreme Court—is almost purely a matter of choice. Indeed, it is most often a matter of political choice. And while, realistically, the qualifications of potential Supreme Court justices may not be changing any time soon, we should not give up on the normative arguments for such change. This is not to suggest that the politics will eventually become less important in the selection of Supreme Court justices, but that, within the realm of political choice, Presidents and Senate majorities might one day think beyond the limited qualifications that today’s nominees uniformly possess—qualifications essentially defined by pedigree.

Singer notes the incentives for the President “to nominate a sitting judge with sterling credentials,” which deters the opposition from “play[ing] games with the confirmation of such a highly qualified candidate.” His cites as an example Harriet Miers, President George W. Bush’s original choice to replace retiring associate justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2005. Miers was White House Counsel; her prior experience included many years as a corporate lawyer in a large firm, and she served as the head of both the Dallas Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas, as well as chair of the Texas Lottery Commission and as an elected member of the Dallas City Council—a record of accomplishment and service of which any lawyer would rightly be proud, and a record of experience that might reasonably be thought to inform many issues that might come before the U.S. Supreme Court in areas such as municipal law, the practice of law, civil procedure, and the regulation of lawyers.

On the other hand, Miers never served as a judge in any state or federal court, or taught as a law school professor, or litigated constitutional cases before any court, much less the U.S. Supreme Court. Oh, and she earned her law degree at Southern Methodist University. But the absence of typically elite credentials did not fuel Democratic opposition to her nomination; rather, that opposition came from within, as pressure from Republicans within and without the Senate ultimately resulted in the withdrawal of her candidacy. At least one conservative commentator put a fine point on her nomination: “The Supreme Court is an elite institution,” Charles Krauthammer wrote. “It is not one of the ‘popular’ branches of government.”

Interestingly, what was known at the time of Miers’s views on many of the issues of most concern to a Republican President suggests she would have consistently voted with majorities to curtail the right to choose, embrace the right to bear arms, and respect state sovereignty. Indeed, it is far from clear how many cases would have turned out very differently had she, and not O’Connor’s eventual successor, Samuel Alito, made it to the Court.

The elitism that contributed to the downfall of the Miers nomination was not the result of any constitutional or statutory rule. It simply reflected a modern political calculation, one that has hardened into an expectation. Any President—or Senate Judiciary Committee—could insist that it be changed. And change may come, should political majorities coalesce around the belief that the lives and experiences of Supreme Court justices should not be so distant from those of most American lawyers—or, indeed, most Americans—as to cast a shadow on the legitimacy of judicial decision-making that affects every one of us.

Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now

Lawrence Friedman’s recent post lays out a compelling case for achieving educational and experiential diversity on the Supreme Court. He looks to the states for guidance, noting that courts of last resort at the state level frequently feature highly qualified justices who graduated from a wide range of law schools and who feature an extensive variety of practice experience.

It’s a tantalizing analogy, which works well in some states but doesn’t translate to the federal level. Still, there are glimmers of hope for more experiential diversity in future iterations of the Supreme Court. More below. Continue reading “Experiential diversity on the Supreme Court is a pipe dream — at least for now”