Florida judge admits ethics violations in election campaign

From the Palm Beach Post: Santino says she broke rules in election but still fit to be judge.

The judge, who was elected in November, is facing disciplinary action for four ethics violations, stemming from campaign statements that impugned the integrity of her opponent and the entire judicial process. Of note, Judge Santino sent a campaign email disparaging her opponent’s criminal defense work and is tied to a Facebook page proclaiming that her opponent “has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.”

Judge Santino faces a disciplinary hearing before another state judge this week, after which recommendations will be made to the state supreme court. From an organizational perspective, this is another interesting example of the courts policing the actions of their own members even when those actions fall outside the strict definition of judicial activity.

The case, alas, is also another example of how contested judicial elections can compromise both the actual and perceived impartiality of judges. Most judges, of course, never run into ethical issues of this type. But elections vastly increase the risk of such ethical violations, and the misbehavior of a handful of judges or judicial candidates can have damaging ripple effects on the public trust of the entire judiciary.

California courts to pilot video remote interpreting

According to this story, California will pilot the use of the video remote interpreting (VRI) technology in the Superior Courts of Merced, Sacramento, and Ventura.  The pilot, designed to cope with what is described as a “severe shortage” of qualified court interpreters in the state, will begin in July.

Delaware courts embracing private sector management techniques

Buried in this story about the University of Delaware’s partnership with the state court system to create a fellows program for graduate students is a most interesting point:

In 2014, the judicial branch entered a 10-year partnership with the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics to improve court operations using private-sector techniques.

As part of the effort, many in the courts were trained in Lean Six Sigma, a methodology focused on removing waste from the processes. The courts said this helped save the judicial branch and partner agencies more than 4,250 staff hours.

Courts have been looking to private sector organizations for management techniques for  a century, when Chief Justice Taft began infusing the federal courts with “executive principle.” But until this story broke, I was admittedly unaware that Six Sigma techniques were being applied directly in state court systems.

More background on the court-university partnership is here.

Minnesota judge loses constitutional challenge to state’s mandatory retirement age

Last summer, Minnesota District Judge Galen Vaa filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that its mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 was unconstitutional.  (Vaa is currently 69 and wants to keep working past next year.)  This week, another district judge in the state ruled against his claim, concluding that the state constitution authorized the legislature to set a mandatory retirement age.

Most states impose mandatory retirement ages between 70 and 75.  Judge Vaa plans to appeal the ruling.

UPDATE: Michigan lawmakers are considering eliminating that state’s mandatory retirement age for judges.  We’ll follow this development as well.

North Carolina House overrides veto on partisan judicial elections bill

As I reported previously, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would require state trial court elections to be partisan.  Candidates would have to participate in party primaries and run under a specific party affiliation.  Disappointingly, the state House of Representatives voted to override the veto yesterday.  The issue now moves to the state Senate.

UPDATE: The Senate has completed the veto override.  All North Carolina judicial elections will be partisan going forward.

Dear Pennsylvania: a lottery is no way to pick a judge

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the results of last week’s ballot lottery for candidates seeking a position on Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas (its general jurisdiction trial court).  Forty-eight candidates entered the state primary for ten open positions, and their ballot order was determined by lottery.  The article nicely details the consequences of ballot position: candidates at the top have a tremendous strategic advantage in the primary election, regardless of their relevant experience, expertise, or skill.

Judicial elections were the standard for state courts until the mid-twentieth century, but their flaws have become increasingly exposed over time.  Poor or incompetent judges are elected, experienced jurists are removed in party sweeps, and public confidence falls as judges are treated as ordinary politicians.  Groups like Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts have been at the forefront of pushing for positive change in that state’s judicial selection methodology.

Contested elections can — and often do — produce fine judges.  And judges should be accountable to the public they serve, no matter how they are chosen.  But the surety of choosing a good judge by contested election increasingly feels like a lottery itself.

NC governor vetoes judicial election bill

I previously reported on a bill in the North Carolina legislature that would convert the state’s elections for trial judges into partisan races.  The practical effect would be that judicial candidates would first have to clear party primaries, and then would appear on the ballot with a party designation.

This was a bad idea, and Governor Roy Cooper has vetoed the bill.

Although Cooper is a Democrat and the North Carolina legislature is controlled by Republicans, the acknowledged inefficacy of partisan judicial elections is not itself a partisan issue.  Politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum agree that in the modern era, party labels for judicial candidates weaken the public legitimacy of the judiciary, offer little significant information to voters, and are at best extremely awkward for judges.  The North Carolina proposal was a step backward.