Making sense of the recent Congressional testimony on courts and technology

On June 25, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing entitled Federal Courts During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Best Practices, Opportunities for Innovation, and Lessons for the Future. The hearings featured testimony (via Zoom, of course) from federal district judge David Campbell, Michigan Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, former federal district judge (and current Executive Director of the Berkeley Judicial Institute), and Melissa Wasser of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The testimony was interesting, as was the choice of witnesses. The entire hearing (all 102 minutes of it) can be found directly below, with some thoughts on what transpired to follow.

Continue reading “Making sense of the recent Congressional testimony on courts and technology”

The challenge of reopening courts

A number of recent news stories have emphasized the reluctance of many white-collar workers to go back to the office, even when their places of business are authorized to reopen. Extensive safety precautions, combined with the ability of many employees to work effectively from home, has even led some to proclaim the death of the modern office.

As admirable a job as courts have done with videoconferencing during the coronavirus pandemic, they do not have the same luxury of transitioning everyone to a long-term work-from-home arrangement. And so courts are reopening around the country. And they are finding difficult challenges in front of them. Safety and social distancing guidelines means that there is less space for observers and unsettled questions about enforcement of safety norms. Returning judges and attorneys are also facing heavily backlogged dockets and the further postponement of trials and hearings. It will require patience and creativity to get things back on an even keel.

California approves plan to allow judges to comment on their own (and others’) decisions

The California Supreme Court has approved a change to its Code of Judicial Ethics, which would allow state judges to publicly comment on pending proceedings, including their own decisions and decisions of their colleagues. The most important change is to Canon 3B(9) and associated comments. The amended Canon now reads, in pertinent part:

In connection with a judicial election or recall campaign, this canon does not prohibit any judge from making a public comment about a pending proceeding, provided (a) the comment would not reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of the proceeding, and (b) the comment is about the procedural, factual, or legal basis of a decision about which a judge has been criticized during the election or recall campaign.

These changes have been in the works for some time, a reaction to the ugly 2018 campaign to recall state judge Aaron Persky. The sentiment is understandable, given that judges who produce unpopular decisions are sitting ducks in an election when they cannot even respond to unfair or oversimplified attacks by their antagonists. Permitting judges to at least clarify the context of their decisions, or to comment on the overall qualifications of a fellow judge whose career is being reduced to a single decision, may prevent voters from removing a judge rashly.

But there is still reason to be worried about whether this change will work for the better. Now that judges are permitted to comment on pending proceedings, they have less of an excuse to not comment when pressed by the media or an election opponent. Some judges might feel pressure to comment even when they do not want to do so. Others might choose not to comment and find themselves under pressure to justify that decision. Put differently, in some ways the original canon was cleaner because judges had no choice but to remain silent. Now they have more freedom, and that can be a blessing and a curse.

The new rules go into effect July 1. It will be a development worth watching.

 

Courthouses continue to open, carefully

As communities across the United States slowly reopen for business, courthouses are following suit. Extensive precautions and protocols are in place. I have periodically tracked how some court systems have begun their reopening processes, and here is one more: New Mexico resumes jury trials with masks, plexiglass, and cameras.

If these stories seem repetitive, it is only because I am trying to capture a taste of a very unusual time in our history. Many of the lessons to be drawn from this experience will only emerge after a period of reflection and analysis.

 

A reverse judicial cascade!

I have written before about judicial nomination cascades: situations in which a sitting judge is appointed to another court, leaving another vacancy on the judge’s original court. Usually, cascades move in a single direction: trial judges are appointed to appellate courts, or intermediate appellate judges to courts of last resort.

But this week, Massachusetts initiated a rare reverse judicial cascade when Justice Edward McDonough, Jr., who is currently on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, was nominated for a seat on the Massachusetts Superior Court, which is the state’s general jurisdiction trial court. Judge McDonough previously served on the Superior Court from 2013 to 2017.

Judge McDonough’s long career as a trial lawyer suggests a high level of comfort with the trial bench, and it is inspiring to see judges who prefer the hurly-burly of the trial courts over the more sanitized settings of the appeals court. Assuming the appointment is successful, it will be interesting to see who Governor Charlie Baker nominates for the vacancy created on the Appeals Court.

 

A brief history of New Jersey Supreme Court appointments

The New Jersey Globe has put together a useful series of articles on gubernatorial appointments to the state supreme court since 1947. Garden Staters and those interested in the court’s history (and its political dimensions) should take notice.

Alfred Driscoll’s First Seven Picks

The Meyner Court

The Cahill Court

The Byrne Court

The Kean Court

The Whitman Court

The McGreevy and Corzine Courts

The Christie Court

 

Kansas senate rejects state appellate nominee on flimsy grounds

Kansas’s senate has rejected Governor Laura Kelly’s nominee for an opening on the state court of appeals. Carl Folsom, a longtime public defender, experienced appellate advocate, and adjunct professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, was turned down on a close vote, on the grounds that he lacks civil litigation experience.

Give me a break. Folsom is well-respected and highly experienced in both the criminal and appellate arenas. He is familiar with the very court for which he was nominated, having argued many cases before that court over the years. His lack of direct civil experience is a non sequitur — he certainly appears capable of filling that knowledge gap. Unlike a trial court, where a judge must make snap decisions regarding procedure and evidence, and where prior experience is absolutely essential, an appellate judge has a bit more time to educate himself and ruminate on the issues.

This is plainly a political move, brought on by a conservative senate at war with a Democratic governor. GOP Senators were likely disturbed by the fact that Folsom had donated money to Kelly’s gubernatorial campaign, and had advocated for some traditionally liberal issues. But so what? Folsom is a private citizen and is entitled to support his favored candidates and causes. There is nothing I have seen to suggest that he would not perform his judicial duties fairly and honorably.

Courts suffer when the other branches of the government play politics with judicial nominations. The people of Kansas deserve better than this transparently political ploy.

Massachusetts courts embrace virtual hearings

Law360 has a good, general article on how the courts in Massachusetts are embracing virtual hearings in light of the coronavirus pandemic. This segment struck me as particularly interesting:

Like most jurisdictions, Massachusetts has embraced virtual hearings. It’s a development that [U.S. District] Judge [Dennis] Saylor, who took over as chief judge in January, is pleased to see.

“One of my goals was to try to drag the court into the 21st century in terms of video and telephone conferences, and a lot of my colleagues, both locally and nationwide, have been reluctant to do anything over the phone or by video,” he said. “One of the most expensive and problematic things about practicing law is getting in your car from Danvers or flying to Kansas City for a five-minute status conference.

“A silver lining in all of this is we have rapidly developed not only our video capabilities, but also people’s comfort with it, because no one has any choice.”

I have heard similar comments from state judges across the country, and it seems inevitable that certain types of minor hearings will be held via videoconference even after the pandemic ends. As Chief Judge Saylor notes, this is a very good thing.

The bigger question is how the courts will address the right of public access to court proceedings in the context of videoconferencing. There are legitimate concerns about whether the current technology is well-equipped to incorporate public access, but the larger issue will not–and should not–go away. The court systems that take the lead on integrating public access into videoconferencing will be particularly well positioned once the pandemic subsides.

In New Jersey, backlogs and judicial vacancies strain a court system

A snippet from a fascinating Law360 article, which notes that a temporary ban on jury trials combined with a judicial vacancy rate over 10% does not bode well for access to justice in the Garden State:

“My fear is the backlog of trials … whenever jury trials start again, is going to require so much attention from the judges that it’s probably going to have an effect on how other matters proceed in terms of motions and things that normally would be getting done sooner rather than later,” said Keith McDonald of Norris McLaughlin PA.

Florida courts to pilot civil jury trials by videoconference

Florida’s state court system is creating a pilot program to hold civil jury trials via remote technology. Up to five trial circuits across the state will participate.

This is a nod to ongoing concerns about reopening courthouses, but it also creates the possibility of some jury trials remaining fully online even after the pandemic subsides. The more experience that courts have with remote trials now, the more they will be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of remote trials going forward. This pilot program will be worth watching carefully.