Transparency and resource demands combine to squeeze the Maryland courts

The Capital Gazette reports on a loophole in Maryland’s electronic filing system, which allows attorneys to designate documents as “confidential” without filing a separate motion to seal with the court. Using the designation effective prevents interested parties, including the media, from accessing the court filings.

Court documents are presumed to be publicly available, and normally a party must move the court to seal specific documents and provide good reasons for the request. It appears that when Maryland moved to electronic filing in 2014, the system was set up to allow attorneys in cases with exposing sealing orders to designate certain documents as confidential. Lawyers are warned not to designate documents as confidential unless they are covered by a rule or statute. It appears, however, that many documents that should be public have been improperly designated.

The courts do not monitor electronic filing designations on a regular basis, which is probably sensible given the court system’s limited resources. But some greater allocation of resources — either in monitoring or in fixing the electronic loophole — may now be warranted.

Guam judiciary releases four-year plan

The Judiciary of Guam has released a four-year plan that outlines its objectives and goals through 2023. The judiciary worked with the National Center for State Courts in implementing the plan, using a High Performance Court Framework. According to a short story in the Guam Daily Post:

This framework aims to provide a comprehensive set of organizing concepts that describe what a high-performing court seeks to accomplish, demonstrates how a court’s objectives are affected by its managerial culture, identifies measurable categories of performance, and suggests approaches on assembling and using performance information.

There is nothing earth-shaking about the plan or the framework, but that it precisely why I note it here. It’s another reminder that courts of are typical organizations in many ways, and exhibit typical organizational behavior more often than not.

Connecticut ends newspaper publication of court notices

Pennoyer v. Neff noticeThe Hartford Courant reports that the Connecticut state courts will no longer require parties to publish court notices in local papers, effective January 2. Instead, notices will be published in a dedicated court website.

The practice of court notice by publication, sometimes called constructive notice, goes back centuries. It is designed to assure that all interested parties are informed of legal proceedings, especially when those parties cannot be found personally. Indeed, constructive notice played a central role in two of the most famous Supreme Court cases in history. In Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co. (1950), the Court signed off on constructive notice for parties who could not be reasonably ascertained at the time the suit was filed. In Pennoyer v. Neff (1877), the infamous bane of many a first-year law student, the Court based its personal jurisdiction analysis on the premise that constructive notice alone was not enough for the Oregon courts to exercise power over an out-of-state defendant.

Constructive notice is founded on the assumption that if notice is published somewhere, the interested parties are reasonably likely to learn about the proceeding. That itself is a bit of a fiction — the notice in Pennoyer v. Neff was published in a local religious publication called the Pacific Christian Reporter — hardly a paper of major import or geographical reach. But with the unquestioned dominance of the internet in our lives, and the ongoing struggles of the newspaper industry, it is probably more fair to post notices online that in the paper anyway. Newspaper publishers might be rightly angry about the development, but with 2020 on the horizon, it seems sensible for the Connecticut courts to embrace the twenty-first century.

Pictured: The newspaper notice in Pennoyer v. Neff

The costs of judicial interdependence, Part I

First in an occasional series on how organizational interdependence affects the judiciary

Two recent stories illustrate how the structural interdependence of courts within a constitutional system can drive judicial choices and behaviors.

We start in Sandusky, Ohio, where Common Pleas Judge John Dewey appointed his personal court administrator as a deputy court clerk, a position that would allow the administrator to handle all filings in a sensitive case involving allegations of sexual assault. Judge Dewey further decreed that the case filings should remain sealed, meaning that the newly appointed deputy court clerk would be the sole gatekeeper of the records.

The decision angered the local media, which asserted a First Amendment right of access to the filings. This was not an ordinary case of sexual assault: the defendant was the local district attorney, and the public had an interest in the proceedings. To complicate matters further, under Ohio law court records are supposed to be handled by an elected official. Judge Dewey’s administrator was not elected, and Judge Dewey apparently did not inform the elected court clerk about his preferred arrangement. This decision caused enormous confusion in the clerk’s office, both as to why he did not tell the elected clerk what he was doing, and as to whether Dewey’s decision to appoint a deputy court clerk was even legal.

It is also unclear why Judge Dewey had been given the case, given that the defendant was a regular–indeed, institutional–participant in the Sandusky County court system. Typically, when a local attorney or judge is involved as a party in litigation, the case is assigned to a judge unaffiliated with that jurisdiction to prevent a judicial conflict of interest. Somehow, though, Dewey held on to the case for months even though it created a visible conflict with other cases on his docket that had been brought by the prosecutor’s office.

Judge Dewey finally recused himself in late September, noting that “Sandusky County Judges have a conflict in this matter as it may involve a Sandusky County elected official.” A retired judge was appointed to take over the case, and in early December the defendant took a plea deal that will keep him out of jail but require him to resign from his elected position.

So what was going on here? It’s hard to know whether Judge Dewey’s series of odd choices–not recusing himself from the outset, holding on to the case for months, and quietly appointing his administrator to have sole control over the court papers–was driven by ignorance or some sort of malfeasance. But whatever Dewey’s motivation, the situation was made possible by the tight institutional connection between elected officials within the local Ohio court system. Prosecutors, court clerks, and judges are all elected on partisan platforms. Prosecutors often seek judicial office. And the internal community is likely very tight-knit. In many localities the judge, court staff, and criminal attorneys spend so much time together on the job that they come to think of themselves as a team of sorts–what Professor Herbert Jacob called a “courtroom work group” — even though each participant has very different roles and responsibilities. (If you are familiar with the chumminess of the characters on the old “Night Court” series, you get the idea.)

The most benign view of Judge Dewey’s actions, then, is that he sought to protect the court system and its established courtroom work groups from external interference by a curious media. He assigned a trusted assistant to manage and seal records so that a sensitive matter could be handled without undue political pressure. And he overlooked a legal requirement to share that information with the elected clerk. If so, Dewey made a series of mistakes, but in service to the larger institutional scheme. This suggests that there is, perhaps, too much interdependence between the local institutions, such that it is impossible to truly separate them even when doing so would be in the interest of justice.

Of course, it may well be that the benign view is not the correct one, and that Dewey was protecting a prosecutor friend by knowingly, and improperly, taking over his case, and then hiding the details from the media. That certainly seems to be the view of the local paper, which has called for a deeper investigation. But even in this scenario, the situation was exacerbated by the interrelationship of the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and the voting public.

The only clear corrective to this type of problem is vigilance. Those inside the court system need to recognize when their interdependencies can erode the judiciary’s legitimacy or moral authority, and take proactive steps to address them. Those outside the system need to use their powers–formal or informal–to identify potential abuses and call for change. That process is playing out now in Ohio, hopefully with positive results for the future.

Indiana judges involved in late-night White Castle shooting are reinstated

The three Indiana state judges whose late-night fight outside a White Castle restaurant last May led to two being shot and all being suspended will be back on the job in the coming weeks, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports.

Judges Bradley Jacobs and Sabrina Bell received 30-day suspensions in late November, and were reinstated in December 23. Judge Andrew Adams received a 60-day suspension, which will end on January 13. Adams and Jacobs were seriously hurt in the original altercation, which began when after Bell gave a lewd gesture to armed men in the White Castle parking lot in the wee hours of the morning.

Previous coverage here, here, here, and here.

National Judicial Opioid Task Force releases final report

In 2017, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators created the National Judicial Opioid Task Force to address the role of state courts in combating problems associated with opioid addiction. The Task Force has recently released its final report, which can be found here.

The four key findings of the Task Force are:

  1. There is a lack of access to and education about the use of quality, evidence-based treatment, including medication-based treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD)
  2. The most significant impact of the epidemic involves cases with children and families
  3. Congress and federal agencies must recognize state courts as essential partners in the response to the opioid crisis
  4. State courts must design programs and resources that will be effective responses to the next addiction crisis–not just opioids

I encourage you to read the whole thing for further context, and for recommendations on how state courts can respond to the crisis.

What is the right level of court system transparency?

Court transparency is essential, but it cannot be one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s why.

Several recent articles in the popular press and academic literature have grappled with the issue of transparency. Professor Scott Dodson has written about the “open-courts norm” in the United States which, “accentuated by the First Amendment,” guarantees that criminal (and in most cases, civil) proceedings are open to the public. And, channeling Homer Simpson, Professor David Pozen has described government transparency “as the cause of, and solution to, a remarkable range of problems.” Outside the academic world, organizations such as Fix the Court are issuing their own transparency report cards to draw attention to the refusal of some courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) to broadcast oral arguments.

These commentators are on to something important. As public organizations, courts are expected to be broadly transparent about their activities. But not all forms of court transparency are the same. Some types of transparency are necessary to the courts’ survival, while other types of transparency would actually undermine the courts’ operations. It is worth considering why.

Continue reading “What is the right level of court system transparency?”