(Even more) corruption of the judiciary in New York City

The New York Times periodically turns over the rock known as judicial selection in the Big Apple, and lo and behold, the nasty little critters underneath always seem to be thriving. This time it’s a story on corruption in the Bronx, where a Democratic party boss seems to have punished a local judge for refusing to hire his hand-picked crony as a “confidential assistant.”

What a colossal embarrassment. Why do New Yorkers tolerate this?

 

The Illinois courts — we’re not dysfunctional!

There is something odd about the tone of this e-newsletter from Illinois Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier. It is ostensibly announcing good news about a significant funding increase for the Illinois state court system in 2020. But Karmeier takes a weird stab at his colleagues on other, “dysfunctional” state courts, as well as lamenting the same “dysfunction” of the other branches of government in his own state. The article itself is a fairly benign piece praising the court system’s new “workable” budget, but it is written with a bit more color than one might expect from a state chief justice.

Karmeier’s election to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004 was rife with political intrigue, and I do not follow the Illinois courts enough to speak to his professional mannerisms or various political pressures on the courts of that state. Readers can judge for themselves whether I am reading too much into this.

New Mexico Supreme Court invalidates change to judicial election cycle

The New Mexico Supreme Court has invalidated portions of a law, known as a “50 year tuneup,” which would have changed the timing of certain judicial elections in the state. The state already elects a governor and the President in the same election year, and the legislation would have placed at least some judicial elections in interceding cycles (2022, 2026, and so on). But the law was challenged by coalitions representing state judges, as well as several district attorneys and others elected officials whose terms would be immediately affected. The court concluded that changing the timing of elections could not be accomplished without a change to the state constitution.

The sponsors of the law called the problem “an honest mistake on our part,” and are working to change the effectuate the change through a constitutional amendment.

The most pointless judicial election ever?

One candidate was declared ineligible. The votes were counted anyway. But to what end?

A remarkable story from Alabama. Last fall, prosecutor Linda Hall won the Democratic primary for a seat on the Jefferson County Circuit Court located in Birmingham. But before the general election, her primary opponent challenged her victory, alleging that Hall did not meet the state’s requirement that judicial candidates live in the circuit for at least 12 months before the election.

The court agreed, and held that Hall was ineligible to run in the general election. But the ballots had already been printed, so the primary challenger was left out in the cold. Moreover, the court declared that the votes in the general election must still be counted. Despite her ineligiblity, Hall handily defeated the Republican incumbent, Teresa Pulliam, by 16,000 votes in November.

Unsurprisingly, Hall’s electoral victory brought a new round of litigation, this time by two Jefferson County voters who challenged Hall’s fulfillment of the residency requirement. In a trial in late 2018, Hall testified that over the previous 12 months she had lived in four different apartments in the Birmingham area, as well as a number of extended stay hotels in St. Louis, Missouri. Hall explained that she had to keep moving apartments due to problems with mold, foul odors, and smoking neighbors. By early October — just weeks before the general election — she landed in her final apartment, which was actually located within Jefferson County.

After trial, Hall was again declared ineligible for the judgeship, and enjoined from taking the oath of office. This past week, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed that decision without opinion.

So, to recap: a judicial candidate who was declared ineligible for office before the general election was nevertheless elected, and later barred from taking office. Three different courts had to get involved. And at the end of the day, the people of Birmigham County had an unfilled judicial seat. (In another twist, Hall’s opponent, Judge Pulliam, was quickly appointed to a different seat on a criminal court. So losing an election evidently isn’t much of a career killer.)

I suspect that there is much more behind this story, at least as to the motivations of those charged with putting judges on the Alabama bench. It isn’t much of a surprise that Judge Pulliam, a Republican, would be reappointed to another seat by the state’s Republican governor. Likewise, I suspect that Ms. Hall’s electoral victory was a product of party and identity politics. Hall is an African-American woman running as a Democrat in a city that is more than 70% African-American and which regularly elects Democrats to office. It is well-established that many (perhaps most) judicial voters have little knowledge of the candidates before them, and accordingly look for low-salience cues like party affiliation, race, gender, or last name to aid their decisions. If the system worked well, voters would have recognized that a vote for Hall was meaningless. But they voted for her in droves.

It may well be that given Alabama’s dark history of racial inequality, a pure appointment process for judges may not create sufficient public trust in the judiciary. Allowing communities to choose their own judges through elections may therefore be a necessary accommodation. But if we are to put judicial candidates before the voters, at least those candidates should be minimally qualified, and at least the voters should be minimally discerning.

 

 

Arkansas prosecutor under fire for collecting signatures for judicial run while trying a murder case

Arkansas prosecutor Stephanie Potter Barrett, who is seeking a seat on the state’s Court of Appeals, has come under criticism after it was revealed that her aunt was collecting signatures to get Barrett on the ballot inside the courthouse. More distressingly, at least one of the signatures favoring Barrett’s candidacy was from a juror seated in a murder trial which Barrett was prosecuting.

Barrett insists that she did nothing wrong; she did not collect the signatures herself, and she argues that the courthouse is a public space at which collection of signatures is permitted. But others are not so sure: several ethics experts pointed out that judges cannot use the courthouse to engage in political activity, and suggest that a judicial candidate should be equally restricted. The defendant in the murder trial is also seeking a mistrial based on the juror signature.

It is entirely possible that Barrett really believes that she has done nothing wrong. And it is also entirely possible that the juror who signed the petition knows nothing about Barrett, or even associated her petition with the individual prosecuting the case. (Some people will sign anything.) But the optics are terrible. The courthouse appears politicized, and the fairness of the murder conviction is in doubt.

Reasonable people may differ over the propriety of choosing judges through a direct election. But elections open the door to these kinds of stories, and these kinds of stories erode public confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice itself.

West Virginia judges set to receive salary bump

West Virginia’s Supreme Court has been in the news this year for all the wrong reasons, but that did not prevent the state’s Judicial Compensation Commission from recommending a salary increase for all levels of the judiciary. The increase — of more than 18% for most judges — was driven heavily by comparisons to other states. West Virginia currently ranks 53rd among states and territories for judicial compensation.

Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe Judge Joan Larsen, of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to be a prime candidate to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy should another seat open up during the Trump Administration. Late last year, Judge Larsen delivered the Sumner Canary Memorial Lecture at Case Western Reserve Law School in Ohio, and that school’s law review has just published her remarks.

The lecture is a short and valuable exposition on the often nuanced relationship between state and federal courts–something Judge Larsen knows well. I highly recommend the entire piece to the reader. But a couple of points she made struck me as particularly interesting from an organizational perspective.

Continue reading “Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System”