A call for better ethics training for New York’s town and village justices

The practices of New York State’s “village justices” have long been the subject of deep concern. These judges are empowered to hear a variety of low-stakes cases at the local level. But most lack any legal training, resulting in poor practices, questionable procedures, and misapplications of the law.

Perhaps this type of local magistrate made sense in the nineteenth century, when it was necessary to have a judicial figure in each town or village to address on-the-spot legal disputes. But the continued practice raises a variety of significant, ongoing ethics concerns.

In 2006, the New York Times published an expose on the questionable practices of village justices, finding examples of judicial intimidation, open racism, jailing defendants capriciously and without bail, and willful ignorance of applicable law.

Not much happened in response. But this week, the issue roared back once again. New York State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct published a report emphasizing (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the most frequent and common ethical lapses in the state judiciary are committed by town and village justices who lack legal training. Examples of such lapses include posting case details on social media, and failing to create a record of any court proceedings for eight years.

There are currently no plans to change the system. No surprise there, either.

Maine considers tripling daily juror pay

A legislative committee in Maine has endorsed raising the daily pay of state court jurors from $15 to $50, a move which would shift the state from the nation’s bottom tier of juror pay to its top echelon. Legislators appear to understand that the current rate provides incentives to potential jurors not to show up to court. The proposed raise would require an annual outlay of an additional $1 million by fiscal 2020.

African-American legislators protest South Carolina judicial election

South Carolina is one of only two states in which the legislature chooses the state’s judges. (Virginia is the other.) Often, the biggest concern about this form of selection is that legislators will choose their colleagues for the bench rather than seeking out the best possible candidates.

This week, however, a different issue arose in South Carolina’s judicial election process. In a contested race for the state court of appeals, private attorney Blake Hewitt was elected over Allison Renee Lee, a state trial judge with 20 years of experience. Hewitt was considered highly qualified for the position, but lacked any of Lee’s judicial experience. Hewitt is also white, and Lee is black.

After the election, several (but not all) black legislators briefly walked out of chambers in protest. Some suggested that the election was an act of racism, while others expressed concern about ensuring greater diversity on the state bench.

Sheriff accused of manipulating courtroom cameras to view juror’s notebook during trial

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a strong advocate of courtroom cameras to promote transparency and educate the public about the work of the courts. So when access to courtroom cameras is abused, I am obligated to note that as well.

In a truly odd case coming out of San Juan County, Washington, the court dismissed assault and trespass charges against a criminal defendant after it was discovered that the local sheriff was manipulating a courtroom camera to view defense documents and a juror’s notebook during trial. The manipulation was only discovered when the defense attorney was reviewing a calendar at the court administrator’s desk during a break in the trial.

Loring [the defense attorney] said she was reviewing a calendar at the desk of Jane Severin, the court administrator, which has two computer monitors — one for work and the other showing views from security cameras in and outside the San Juan County Courthouse. According to court documents, Loring said her attention was drawn to movement of one of the normally stationary cameras. A closer look revealed it was the camera located above the jury box in district court, and that it was panning, tilting and zooming in on the jury box and counsel tables.

Good grief.

The sheriff maintain that any camera manipulation was accidental and unintentional. The judge dismissed the case.

Washington judges to get a pay raise

The slightly ominous-sounding Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials has approved pay raises for several state government officials, including judges. Most judges will receive an 8.5% pay hike this year, another another 2.5% raise in 2020. The raises are designed to keep state judicial compensation close to the pay scale for federal judges.

Two state supreme courts converge in Texarkana

State courts do an admirable job of bringing their work into the community, and one of the more common approaches is to hold oral arguments in high schools. Setting up an argument in a school auditorium is manageable logistically, and allows students to see how the courts operate close-up.

So I particularly liked this story about the supreme courts of Arkansas and Texas traveling to Texarkana at the same time to hold hearings. The Arkansas justices held their proceedings at Arkansas High School, and the Texas justices at Texas High School, before coming together for a question-and-answer session at the city’s convention center. It shows the courts to be both thoughtful and savvy in their community outreach.

West Virginia considers new legislation affecting the courts

The West Virginia legislature has been busy introducing new bills that would affect the state courts. One bill would add magistrate judges to the court system and give all state magistrates a salary increase. Another bill would require that the state supreme court hear all appeals as of right.

Neither of these ideas is new — the magistrate bill was introduced without success in previous years, and the state supreme court already hears all appeals by court rule. But the bills are still significant. The magistrate bill acknowledges the continued resource needs of the court system in a state with a growing population. And the appeals bill, while merely codifying an existing practice, represents a carefully considered tradeoff between imposing burdens on the supreme court and the cost of creating an intermediate appellate court. At minimum, these bills are a sign that the legislature is thinking meaningfully about the needs of the court system after years of chaos within the judicial branch.