Judges Behaving Badly

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Attention turned this spring to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas following revelations of both the close relationship his wife, Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist, enjoyed with operatives involved in perpetuating the lie that Donald Trump won the last presidential election; and her express alignment with interest groups appearing before the Court. For his part, Justice Thomas has given no indication that he has or will recuse himself in cases in which his wife played some part.

But Justice Thomas is not the only jurist involved of late in questionable decisions regarding the limits of the judicial role. Back in 2018, as discussed here, Massachusetts state district court judge Shelley Joseph allegedly interfered with the enforcement of federal immigration law. The government maintains that, after presiding over the arraignment of an undocumented immigrant for whom Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had issued a detainer and warrant for removal, Judge Joseph helped the individual to avoid the ICE official waiting for him to exit the courthouse. The government charged her with conspiring to obstruct justice and obstructing a federal proceeding. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected her request for interlocutory relief while her prosecution continues in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

More recently, there is the story of New York Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera, under investigation by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct for refusing to adhere to the court system’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. As the New York Times reported in March, Judge Rivera “has participated remotely in the court’s activities since the fall, when the state court system’s vaccination mandate took effect and unvaccinated employees were barred from court facilities.” The other six justices of the state’s highest court have continued to confer and hold oral arguments in person. It seems clear that Judge Rivera did not claim she was exempt from the mandate on either religious or medical grounds. Continue reading “Judges Behaving Badly”

First Circuit rejects state judge’s criminal appeal as premature

The First Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected an appeal by Massachusetts state judge Shelley Joseph, claiming that it is premature. Readers will recall that in 2019, Judge Joseph was charged in federal court with obstruction of justice, after she allegedly helped an illegal immigrant avoid an ICE agent who was waiting in her courtroom to arrest him.

In federal district court, Joseph moved the dismiss the charges on the grounds of “absolute judicial immunity.” The district judge declined to dismiss, and Joseph appealed. But the First Circuit held that the appeal was premature because the trial court’s ruling did not operate as a final decision on the merits.

Interlocutory appeals — those taken up before the substance of a case is decided — are rarely granted, and there is no particular reason why this case should be an exception. As the First Circuit noted, even if Joseph can invoke judicial immunity as a defense, such immunity “does not provide a right not to be tried.” The case will return to the district court for further proceedings.

Newly elected judges swap courts to minimize conflicts of interest

Two recently elected judges in upstate New York have been assigned to each other’s courthouses in an effort to minimize potential conflicts. Both judges were long-time legal aid attorneys and developed extensive relationships with lawyers and other actors in their respective courts. Recognizing that the likelihood of a conflict of interest — real or perceived — was too high, the state court administrator had the judges swap courts for a year.

This is a rather elegant solution, and seems to be in the best interests of all involved. The judges can get accustomed to the bench without the constant specter of conflicts, and soon enough will return to the jurisdictions that elected them. In the meantime, the public can have more confidence that the judges’ decisions are not based on old professional relationships, and the court system will have fewer conflicts to manage.

New Mexico advances legislation to criminalize threats against state judges

The New Mexico House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation that would impose criminal penalties on anyone who threatens a judge or the judge’s family members. The bill, which passed the House by a vote of 59-7, now heads to the state senate.

The proposed law would make it a misdemeanor to “doxx” any judge by sharing his or her personal information. Under the same law, it would be a fourth-degree felony to threaten a judge or the judge’s family with the intent of causing fear of great harm, disrupting the judge’s official duties, or retaliating for work done in court.

Some House members expressed concern that the bill criminalizes free speech. I am sympathetic to the concern that political speech be open, but the issue here is altogether different. Every ordered society limits the permissibility of threatening language. Here, threat to judges place a substantial risk of undermining the efficacy and legitimacy of the judicial system. Judges are prepared to have people upset with their decisions, but it is altogether different to ask them to serve when they are physically threatened.

We have seen too much of this behavior in recent years, including the recent threats to the young children of the judge in the Kyle Rittenhouse criminal trial. Criminalizing such malfeasance is long overdue.

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?”