On the politics of judicial identity

Two recent stories illustrate the slippery role that stereotypes and identity politics play in state judicial elections. In Louisiana, judicial candidate Ron Johnson appeared in campaign ads wearing his twin brother’s judicial robe and calling himself “Judge Johnson.” (His brother is a sitting judge.) Johnson admitted his mistake and accepted responsibility for it, but the intent was clearly to send the message that he was an incumbent judge — and probably to take advantage of the professional goodwill his brother had already amassed on the bench.

Elsewhere, Caroline Cohen defeated three other candidates for a seat on the civil court bench in Brooklyn’s 6th judicial district last Tuesday. But one of her opponents, Tehilah Berman, charges that Cohen — nee Caroline Piela — took her husband’s identifiably Jewish last name shortly before the election in order to attract Orthodox Jewish voters in the district. Cohen apparently also ran ads in Jewish publications with the Biblical injunction “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” Berman, who finished last in the race, claims that Cohen deliberately presented herself as a devout Jew in order to draw in votes.

We have seen sketchy campaign behavior before, including judicial candidates cynically manipulating their names for electoral gain. Last year, an even more egregious example was set when Chicago lawyer Phillip Spiwack named changed his name to Shannon O’Malley on the theory that a female, Irish name would make him a shoo-in with Cook County voters. Sadly, it worked. In another recent incident, a Nevada judge seeking reelection photoshopped Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson alongside her in a print ad, even though he had never endorsed her candidacy.

But seeing these two most recent incidents side by side was particularly striking, because they both undermine public confidence in the judiciary, but in opposite directions. Ron Johnson’s impersonation of a sitting judge preyed on the positive stereotypes that voters associate with the judicial robe. As I explain in part here, citizens associate the generic judge with a high level of impartiality, dignity, and inherent sense of fairness.  When a judicial candidate dons the robe and is later found to have acted unethically, positive associations with the robe and the judiciary go down.

Caroline Cohen’s name switch (occurring as it did months before the election, and after 13 years of marriage) was arguably even worse, as it sought to take advantage of the modern identity politics that have been sown so dismayingly at the national level. Cohen was banking on Orthodox Jewish voters choosing “one of their own” at the polls, having done no other homework on the candidates or their qualities and qualifications. She turns out to have been correct in that assumption (and indeed, similar behavior has been recorded in various parts of the country for decades), but at what cost? The entire episode moves public beliefs about the judiciary away from the ideals of neutrality, experience, and competence, and closer to the cynical wisdom of “she is one of ‘my’ people, and will put a finger on the scale for me if I ever need it.”

Modern politicians use identity politics divisively to create natural voter bases, and to later whip those bases into a froth with perceived slights against their group. The whole premise is degrading, dehumanizing, and de-democratizing, albeit an effective tool in our troubled times for the small-minded politician. Judges and judicial candidates, however, can never afford to peddle in the cramped and dark politics of identity. In doing so, they give away their greatest assets: the promise of equal justice for all.

Judge indicted in White Castle scuffle that led to his own shooting

In early May, a thoroughly bizarre and tragic story came out of Indianapolis. Two Indiana state judges, in town for a statewide judicial conference, had been shot outside a White Castle restaurant in the wee hours of the morning. Both men survived the shooting, and police concluded early on that they had not been targeted because they were judges, but the incident left the entire state judiciary shaken.

Now another strange turn: one of the injured judges, Andrew Adams, has been indicted by a grand jury for his role in the incident. He faces seven counts of low-level felony and misdemeanor charges.

The prosecutor has been very careful to stress the complicated nature of the investigation, which involved two grand juries and everyone claiming self defense. In the meantime, the Indiana Supreme Court has suspended Adams without pay, pending the outcome of the criminal charges and any related disciplinary proceeding.

I did not post about the shooting when it happened because the facts seemed so uncertain. But moving forward, the story certainly bears watching.

The head of a Florida judicial nominating commission resigns. Who is to blame?

A strange story has emerged out of Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit. The head of the Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission, attorney Alan Landman, resigned after a kerfuffle with Governor Ron DeSantis over the commission’s recommendations for an open judicial seat in Brevard County. Landman maintains that he had no choice but to resign after the Governor directly interfered with the independence of the nominating commission. The Governor’s representatives, by contrast, maintain that Landman was asked for his resignation after he inappropriately pushed his own preferred candidate.

Continue reading “The head of a Florida judicial nominating commission resigns. Who is to blame?”

Another major conflict of interest in Brooklyn’s judicial elections

The chicanery surrounding judicial elections in New York City, and especially Brooklyn, will come as no surprise to longtime readers of this blog. But here we go again:

Brooklyn lawyers who decide who can get the crucial Democratic ballot line to run for prized judicial seats are getting jobs as legal guardians and referees from the very judges they’re charged with reviewing — and their law firms are appearing before those same judges in active cases.

Of the 25 attorneys listed as serving on the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s judicial screening panel in 2019, at least five have been given jobs as court-appointed lawyers by the judges they’re tasked with reviewing, the Daily News has learned.

Previous coverage of the Brooklyn’s high quality approach to selecting judges here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Minnesota broadcasts criminal sentencings … and the world doesn’t end

One of the main concerns expressed by lawyers and judges about courtroom cameras is that they will lead to grandstanding and obnoxious courtroom behavior. But the experience in Minnesota state courts suggests that these concerns are overblown. Using a bit of a loophole in the law — sentencing proceedings do not require assent from the parties — more media are gaining camera access to high-profile sentencings. The results have been mostly positive.

There are ample reasons to want to protect the privacy of victims, jurors, and witnesses during trial. But there are also ample reasons to make the open forum of the courtroom truly open to everyone. Video access of court proceedings is assuredly compatible with safety, due process, and substantial justice.

Louisiana raises judicial salaries

Louisiana legislators voted overwhelmingly last week to raise the salaries of state judges by 2.5% in the coming year. If funds permit, judges would continue to receive equivalent pay raises for each of the four years after that as well.

The source of the funding struck me as noteworthy:

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed to cover the first year of pay raises for judges — at an estimated cost of $1.8 million — from its substantial cash reserves. It’s unclear whether judges will continue to tap reserves or turn to state taxpayers to cover future raises, which could cost as much as $9.5 million per year if all five annual pay hikes are awarded.

I thought that judicial salaries typically came from funds controlled by the legislature. It’s quite interesting that salaries are to be paid (at last initially) out of the state supreme court’s “substantial” independent funds.

Massachusetts set to lift ban on cell phones in courthouses

Following the recommendation of its Access to Justice Commission, the Massachusetts Trial Court Department is taking immediate steps to lift the ban on cell phones on state courthouses.

The Commission’s report

cited hardships such as the inability of self-represented litigants to present photos or text messages as evidence to a judge, to consult their calendars, to reach child care providers, or to transact other “essential” business.

The recommendations of the working group include a full review of all courthouse bans to determine whether they are justified, and a pilot program to test the use of magnetically locked security pouches.

“Instead of using a strategy that relies on prohibiting the possession of cell phones as a condition of entry, each courthouse should employ a strategy, tailored to its security needs, that relies on regulating and controlling the use of cell phones within the building,” the authors of the report wrote.

This seems like a sensible step in the right direction. The made sense to ban phones in an earlier era, where the potential distraction might outweigh their value. But the near necessity of cell phones today–for child care and emergency communications, as memory and scheduling devices, and as carriers of critical personal information–merits a different response.