In Memoriam: Mary J. Mullarkey

Today brings the sad news of the passing of Mary Mullarkey, a member of the Colorado Supreme Court for 23 years and Chief Justice of the Court for twelve of those years. Chief Justice Mullarkey was an outstanding judge and a tireless leader of the state’s third branch.

I was fortunate enough to clerk on the Colorado Supreme Court during Mullarkey’s time as Chief Justice, and saw what a wonderful mentor and colleague she was. She was a giant in the state’s legal community, and will be sorely missed.

State courts come under legislative assault

State legislators are trying to politicize their judiciaries for short-term gain. Courts, their users, and the public must speak up to stop them.

The first weeks of the 2021 legislative session have seen an extraordinary number of proposals to overhaul the selection of judges or otherwise affect the composition of state judiciaries. Among them:

In Montana, Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the state’s judicial nominating commission, giving the governor direct appointment power over district court judges and state supreme court justices. The nominating commission, in place for nearly half a century, was expressly implemented to depoliticize the judicial appointment process. Despite an outpouring of criticism for the proposal, which is widely seen as a partisan gambit by new Governor Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators, the bill passed the legislature last week. If signed by the governor, the bill would make Montana a national outlier in its refusal to use an independent nominating commission.

In Alaska, a very similar bill would eliminate the role of the state’s nominating commission for the appointment of judges on the district courts and state court of appeals. Senate Bill 14 was introduced by Republican senator Mike Shower in late January. As in Montana, the bill has been panned as “a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska‚Äôs system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics.” Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, similarly criticized the bill as undermining a well-established and respected judicial selection process. Continue reading “State courts come under legislative assault”

A nice primer on how federal funding reaches state and local courts

Pew Charitable Trusts has a very informative interview with American University’s Karen Lash about how to leverage federal pass-through funding to improve state and local civil justice systems. It’s a useful read for anyone who wants to better understand how federal spending trickles down to local entities.

Today’s COVID responses can improve tomorrow’s judicial performance evaluations

That’s the main thrust of my latest guest post at the IAALS blog. Forced to adopt a wide range of technological resources during the pandemic, courts systems are now better situated to use that technology to improve surveys, observe judicial behavior, and communicate wih the public.

People are ducking jury duty amid COVID concerns

Bloomberg Law reports that while some state courts have reopened their courtrooms to live trials, most people called for jury duty are not showing up. In California Superior Court in San Diego, only 5% of those receiving a jury summons actually came to court on their appointed day.

It’s not that courthouses are inherently dangerous, or likely super-spreader locations. Indeed, courts nationwide have made every effort to insure juror safety, and — as importantly — to make jurors feel safe. Massachusetts, for example, has temporarily reduced the jury size from twelve to six, and has installed so much plexiglass in courthouses that, according to Chief Justice of the Trial Courts Paula Carey, some jurors felt safer in the courthouse than at the grocery store.

Still, this is going to be a slow climb back to normalcy. The length of the pandemic has conditioned our brains to think differently about being in enclosed areas with others, and even after we hit herd immunity, it will be a while before we can loosen up again. To keep the docket moving, courts should think about hybrid models, using both live and video components, even after the pandemic subsides.

Nevada Supreme Court seeks substantial pay hikes for state judges

The proposed legislation would increase all judicial salaries by $30,000/year, with additional automatic increases beginning in 2027. Interestingly, the bill came from the supreme court itself, as Nevada permits government entities other than the legislature to propose legislation.

West Virginia will again consider adding an intermediate court of appeals

West Virginia is one of the few states that has no intermediate appellate court, meaning that its state supreme court faces a more congested, mandatory docket. Lawmakers have periodically proposed adding a new court, but without success.

The effort has begun again: the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act was introduced in the state’s senate judiciary committee this week.

Intermediate appellate courts cost money and demand infrastructure, but they also make a lot of sense from the standpoint of the administration of justice. Some lawmakers are optimistic that this will be the year.

About that cat video…

The viral sensation of the week is this video from a virtual hearing in a Texas state court:

The apparent backstory is that the lawyer’s secretary sometimes brings her children to the office, and one of them was using the office computer and installed the cat filter without telling anyone. And we can all relate: just two days ago my young son was using my computer for a Zoom playdate, and that evening I logged into my class from what appeared to be low-earth orbit. (Fortunately, I was able to switch the background pretty quickly.)

Still, I love how the judge handled the situation. Faced with an absurd and unexpected event, he showed extraordinary patience and grace — in fact, it was the judge himself who guided the lawyer through the steps of removing the filter. Moreover, the judge’s behavior was exactly what we should expect of judges. The fact that his dignified handling of the matter has gone viral may have the marginal benefit of reminding the public that courts are overwhelmingly serious, professional, and dignified places.

Kudos to Judge Bauer, and all involved, for injecting professionalism into a moment of absurdity.

West Virginia governor will appoint the judge who will rule in his case

A strange development in West Virginia. State judge Charles King passed away last month, and Governor Jim Justice is charged with appointing his replacement. Interviews will be taking place this week. At the time of his death, Judge King was presiding over a lawsuit in which the Governor was the defendant. The new appointee will take the reins of that suit. Put differently, the Governor will literally be picking the judge in his own case.

While it is common for governors to temporarily fill vacant seats on the bench so that the courts remain at full strength, this situation is plainly awkward. It is all the more so because of the efforts in the mid-2000s of Massey Coal Company to heavily finance the election of Brent Benjamin to the state supreme court; Benjamin would later cast the deciding vote in Massey’s favor in a major case pending before that court.

Governor Justice must carry out his appointment responsibilities, but he would be well-served by including extra transparency in the process — for his sake, the new judge’s sake, and the sake of long-term public confidence in the state judiciary.

More on the Pennsylvania plan to create partisan judicial elections by district

I was pleased to weigh in this week on the proposed Pennsylvania legislation that would shift partisan elections for its state supreme court from a statewide ballot to a regional one. (More on the proposal here and here.) As the Spotlight PA article suggests, my concern is not with creating geographic districts, but rather with the potentially explosive mix of districts and partisan races. That combination seems to me to especially invite special interest and dark money, similar to the notorious 2004 supreme court election in Illinois.

Interestingly enough, South Carolina is also considering a move to expand and diversity the geographic perspective of its supreme court, which is chosen entirely by the legislature. We’ll continue to follow both proposals here.