In Memoriam: Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr.

Thoughts on the loss of a mentor and friend.

Hobbs and JMS 7-22-15

This is a tough one.

Former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs passed away last week, just a few days short of his 76th birthday. I was privileged to clerk for Justice Hobbs during the court’s 2000-01 Term, and he remained a professional mentor and personal friend for twenty years thereafter. Justice Hobbs showed me how a good judge conducts himself. More importantly, he showed me how a good person conducts himself, day in and day out.

Coming out of law school, I was very fortunate to have several clerkship offers to choose from, both at the state and federal level. But I instantly gravitated to Justice Hobbs. Although he did not move to Colorado until after he had graduated law school, he effortlessly exuded a Western passion and a Western sensibility that clicked with my deep Colorado roots. He embodied almost every Western stereotype you can imagine — outdoorsman, water lawyer, connoisseur of huevos rancheros, Bronco fan, relentless fan of bolo ties — but his deep knowledge of the state and its people made all of it seem so natural. (He could look out the window of his office in downtown Denver and rattle off the names of all the visible Front Range mountains, working from south to north.) Greg Hobbs was Colorado, and he always had the best interests of Coloradans at heart.

Continue reading “In Memoriam: Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr.”

A roundup of interesting state court developments

Several interesting and important developments have taken place in state courts this past week. Among them:

  • The Chief Judge of the Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court announced that the court has a backlog of 3,000 cases that must be resolved by 2023. Nearly 90 percent of those cases are criminal matters. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to 89 percent of all court hearings being held remotely. 
  • New Hampshire has a new state court administrator. Dianne Martin was most recently the Chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and has worked in and with the state colurt system for nearly twenty years.
  • And Idaho’s state court administrator has been named in a federal lawsuit filed by Courthouse News Service, alleging that the state’s practice of posting new case filings impermissibly delays public and media access to new case information. Courthouse News Service has filed similar lawsuits against other court administrators in the past, each time alleging that the court’s default position should be to provide immediate electronic access once a matter is filed.

Death threats made against children of judge in Rittenhouse trial

Wisconsin judge Bruce Schroeder has drawn considerable attention for his handling of the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who is accused of killing two Antifa activists and wounding another during a riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. 

For better or worse, judges in high-profile trials always come under the microscope. And some of Judge Schroeder’s behaviors during the trial have not inspire enormous confidence in his personal and professional discretion. But fair and reasonable scrunity is quickly being replaced by physical threats, and the threats here are extremely serious.

Judge Schroeder has received thousands of vile messages, many of them including explicit death threats. Some of those threats are targeted at his children, who are now receiving round-the-clock protection. However you feel about the substance of the Rittenhouse trial, these types of actions are completely unacceptable in civilized society. Let’s hope that each and every one of these goons faces his or her own day in court in the very near future.

Does requiring jurors to be vaccinated raise due process concerns?

As part of their public safety planning in the wake of the pandemic, a number of courts across the United States are beginning to require that jurors for in-person trials be vaccinated against COVID-19. That is a perfectly sensible policy. But it raises complex ancillary issues about the makeup of the jury pool once unvaccinated — but otherwise eligible — citizens are excluded from jury service.

An editorial in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly articulates the problem:

Barring unvaccinated individuals could, in some parts of the state, make it more difficult to secure enough prospective jurors. It could also skew the jury pool, leading to more homogenous and less diverse juries. 

Generally speaking, vaccinated Americans are more likely to be older, female, white, college-educated and liberal in their political leanings, while unvaccinated Americans are more likely to be younger, conservative, male or people of color. 

In Massachusetts, statistics show that in cities such as Brockton, Lowell, Springfield and Worcester the percentages of Black and Hispanic individuals who are vaccinated are well under 50 percent, and the percentages of vaccinated individuals in their 20s are significantly lower than is the case for older people. 

As the editorial further notes, there is no constitutional bar to excluding unvaccinated individuals, since they are not being denied the chance to perform jury service on the basis of race, gender, religion, or another protected category. But it could skew the jury pool away from the reasonable cross-section of the community. 

There is also the perverse satisfaction that some might take in knowing that being unvaccinated gets them out of jury service. Perhaps such jurors should still be required to serve on virtual –or even outdoor — trials, if the demand for such proceedings continues.

A judge faces a reprimand for a five-second phone call

Law360.com reports on an ethics complaint filed against Arthur Bergman, a retired state superior court judge in New Jersey. Judge Bergman allegedly made an independent phone call to a potential witness in a case over which he was presiding. Rule 3.8 of New Jersey’s Code of Judicial Conduct states, “Except as otherwise authorized by law or court rule, a judge shall not initiate or consider ex parte or other communications concerning a pending or impending proceeding.”

Judge Bergman does not contest that he made the call to a potential witness in the family trust dispute, but he maintains that the purpose of the call was simply to check the witness’s availability for a plenary hearing. The judge’s phone message, however, never referenced a hearing, and ultimately no hearing took place. Upon learning about the call, one of the attorneys in the case asked the judge to recuse himself, but Judge Bergman refused.

Complicating the story is the fact that Judge Bergman suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which apparently makes it difficult for him to speak. He maintains that this is why he did not mention the hearing on the message.

The state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct is seeking a public censure, to send a message to other judges that such behavior is not appropriate.  Judge Bergman’s own lawyer maintains that disciplining a retired judge would do nothing to preserve the integrity of the state judiciary.

What do you think, readers?

Should judicial compensation be tied to performance evaluation results?

Several states use judicial performance evaluation (JPE) programs to periodically evaluate state judges. In all states that use JPE, evaluation results are used to promote the development and professional growth of the evaluated judge, and to develop training programs for the judiciary more generally. In many states, JPE is also used to provide information to those charged with determining whether a judge should stay on the bench. In states where judges face retention elections, for example, JPE results are often communicated to voters in the weeks preceding the election. And in states in which the legislature or a commission decided whether the judge should be retained, JPE results are typically times to give valuable information to the decisionmaker about each judge’s strengths and weaknesses.

JPE has never been used to determine judicial salaries or benefits, and with good reason: an independent judiciary should not feel that remuneration is tied to specific outcomes. This has always seemed like such a given that I never found it necessary to mention when discussing JPE programs. But this article about a proposed salary hike for state judges in Arkansas, which felt the need to explain that “There isn’t a performance evaluation process for  judges and prosecutors in Arkansas,” made me realize that perhaps the general public perception of JPE’s purpose is different. Continue reading “Should judicial compensation be tied to performance evaluation results?”

Ohio Democrats to Democratic judge: Don’t run for chief justice; you could win!

The perverse nature of choosing judges through partisan elections is currently on display in Ohio, where some Democrats see no benefit to a highly qualified member of their own party running for chief justice.

The state’s current chief justice, Maureen O’Connor, is retiring in 2022, and two associate justices of the state supreme court, Patrick DeWine and Jennifer Brunner, are considering running for the open seat. In Ohio, where judges must run in partisan primaries, their party affiliation is well-known. DeWine is a Republican and Brunner is a Democrat. The retiring O’Connor is also a Republican.

Justice Brunner may well make an excellent chief, and she is certainly saying all the right things about serving the people of Ohio. But to some Democratic bean-counters, a Brunner victory only has potential downside.

Here’s why: If Brunner becomes chief justice, her current seat in the state supreme court could be filled by Governor Mike DeWine.* DeWine, a Republican, would presumably appoint a Republican judge to that seat, meaning no net gain on the court for the Democrats. Moreover, if Brunner becomes chief justice, she will only be able to serve one full six-year term before hitting the mandatory retirement age, meaning that she would have to step down from the court after the 2028 election. If she remained in her current position, however, she could in theory stay on the court until 2032.

If you subscribe to the view that judges are simply legislators in robes, maintaining a certain number of (D)s and (R)s on the court is more important than each judge’s skill, integrity, experience, and temperament. But if you view judges as actual people with professional pride and commitments to excellence, treating them as fungible back-benchers is both inaccurate and insulting.

I have no view about who would make the best chief justice for Ohio. But I do know that it has little to do with a forced party affiliation, and much more to do with people skills, administrative capacity, ambition, effort, intelligence, and drive. I hope that Ohioans agree.

* Yes, Mike DeWine is related to Justice Brunner’s opponent, Patrick DeWine. They are father and son, respectively.

The disconnect between what Americans want in their judges and how they choose them

Professor Herbert Kritzer has a very interesting new article in Judicature, exploring the qualities Americans say they want in their state judges. It turns out that professional qualities like reputation for integrity and respect from leaders of the legal community are heavily desired, while political qualities like running for holding office or respect from party leaders is much less desired.

So then why do so many states still choose their judges through partisan, or at least politically influenced, elections? I offer a few thoughts at the IAALS Blog.

States reprimand judges and judicial candidates for electoral improprieties

Judges in Florida and Ohio separately received public reprimands from their state supreme courts this week for interfering with judicial elections during the 2020 campaign.

In Florida, Judge Richard Howard received a reprimand for trying to discourage a lawyer from challenging a sitting judge during a local election, and instead urging the lawyer to challenge a different judge. While Judge Howard did not make the statements public, the state supreme court found that his actions “failed to promote public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary,” among other things.

In Ohio, Karen Falter, a candidate for a trial court seat in Hamilton County, was reprimanded for mailing campaign literature falsely accusing her opponent (then the incumbent) of moving into the county only three years earlier in order to take a judicial appointment. The state supreme court affirmed the reprimand, concluding that the truth about the opponent’s residency was easily verifiable and that making the false statement amounted to at least a reckless disregard of the truth.

Public reprimands are a significant form of attorney and judicial discipline. While the attorney may continue to practice and the judge may remain on the bench, the reprimand and the reasons therefor become part of the public record.

Direct elections are a troublesome way to choose judges, but as long as states require them, candidates need to comport their electoral behavior to preserve public confidence in the judiciary.

Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court

Republican officials in Montana, who declared open season on their own judicial system earlier this year, fired a new salvo at the courts late last week. State Attorney General Austin Knudsen requested that the entire state supreme court recuse itself in a case involving a legislative subpoena of internal court documents.

In March, Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law a bill that would eliminate the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission, and allow the governor to fill judicial vacancies directly. Several weeks ago, the Republican legislature issued a subpoena to the state court administrator, seeking internal emails and other court documents (Including an internal poll) in which state trial judges allegedly expressed opinions on the constitutionality of that legislation. The court administrator asked the state supreme court to quash the subpoena, and Chief Justice Mike McGrath recused himself from that determination because he had lobbied the governor not to sign the bill. The remaining six members of the state supreme court quashed those subpoena in mid-April, pending a further hearing.

The AG now asserts that all members of the supreme court are directly conflicted from participating in any future hearing on the issue, because they would be ruling on access to their own internal documents. The justices’ continued participation in the case constitutes, in the AG’s words, “not merely the appearance of impropriety. This is actual impropriety.”

At first glance, state Republicans have laid a trap for the judiciary worthy of a cartoon villain. If the remaining justices recuse in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the Republicans will challenge any replacement judges on same grounds until they find judges that they feel will rule in their favor. On the other hand, if the justices decline to recuse themselves, they will face continued allegations of bias and impropriety, and will come under heavy political pressure to allow the subpoena to go forward.

Never mind that the allegations of impropriety appear to have absolutely no merit. None of the six justices on the court have spoken in any official public capacity about the subpoenas or the pending legislation. But that is beside the point: the real purpose of the recusal motion is to turn public opinion against the courts by painting the judiciary as hopelessly biased.

There is a way out of this trap, but it will require several careful steps.

Continue reading “Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court”