Trial begins in Louisiana judicial election voting rights case

In February 2014, the local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, filed a federal civil rights action alleging that the system used to elect judges in the state’s 32nd Judicial District violated the federal Voting Rights and the U.S. Constitution.  More than three years and several procedural twists later, the case went to trial this week in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

Terrebonne Parish currently elects all five of its state judges using an “at-large” system, meaning that all judges are chosen by a parish-wide vote even though each judge presides over a specific division of the court.  Plaintiffs argue that this system disenfranchises minority voters, and are seeking to replace it with five judge-specific voting districts, one of which would be a minority district.

Aside from the substantive importance of the parties’ positions, this case is another interesting example of federal challenges to state judicial election practices.

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Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access

For the past five years, Texas’s Office of Court Administration has worked to develop a statewide online database of court filings. The database, called re:SearchTX, covers all 254 counties in the state and is intended to provide a unified, centralized system for access to court filings, similar to the PACER system used by the federal courts. Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has advocated for the new system, noting in particular its ability more quickly and inexpensively to self-represented litigants.

But a smooth launch of re:SearchTX has been stymied by the local courts themselves. And now a bill has been filed in the state House that would allow individual counties to opt out of the system, radically weakening its utility.

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Indiana state courts now open to live tweeting

The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications has issued an advisory opinion stating that live tweeting, microblogging, and other forms of “electronically relaying a written message” do not constitute broadcasting, and therefore do not fall under the general ban on broadcasting courtroom proceedings.  The decision paves the way for journalists of all types to share information on live testimony through Twitter.  Broadcasting video or audio of court proceedings is still prohibited, and trial judges still have discretion to restrict microblogging activity in any given proceeding or trial.

More on the background of the new opinion here.

IAALS unveils updated blueprint for judicial performance evaluation

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) has published Transparent Courthouse Revisited: An Updated Blueprint for Judicial Performance Evaluation.  The document significantly updates a 2006 edition of the same publication.  It draws on best practices from around the country on evaluation commissions, the evaluation process, reaching recommendations, funding, and disseminating results.  It’s an important read for anyone interested in state courts and judicial performance evaluation (JPE).

More on the IAALS Quality Judges Initiative here.

Bill to restore partisan judicial elections passes North Carolina Senate

North Carolina used to select all of its state judges through partisan election.  Judicial candidates would have to win a party primary, and would appear on the ballot with a party designation.  In 1996, the state legislature eliminated the partisan designations for state superior court races, and in 2001 did the same for district courts.  Judges still face contested popular elections, but do not run under any party affiliation.

North Carolina’s move put it in good company.  While a handful of states still have partisan races, most states that still elect their judges long ago moved to a nonpartisan system.  Nonpartisan elections are certainly not foolproof, but deliberately omitting party affiliation from the ballot at least reinforces the message that voters should expect their judges to be impartial in performing their official duties.

This week, however, the North Carolina Senate chose to revert to partisan judicial elections.  The state House of Representatives passed a similar (but not identical) bill earlier in the session.  There is speculation that the Governor may veto the bill.  Stay tuned.

 

Former West Virginia judge appointed state court administrator after bizarre election campaign

A recent court appointment in West Virginia highlights the interplay between a court system’s internal management and its external environment.  Gary Johnson served as a state circuit court judge for 24 years before losing his reelection bid last year by 220 votes.  Last month, his opponent, Stephen Callaghan, was suspended from his judicial duties for two years for improper conduct during he campaign.  (Callaghan’s campaign apparently issued a flyer implying that Judge Johnson partied at the White House with Barack Obama, an action deemed to be a violation of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct and Rules of Professional Conduct.)

Judge Johnson could not undo the election results, but he landed on his feet quickly.  In January, he was appointed interim Administrative Director of the West Virginia courts.  Yesterday, the state supreme court gave him the job permanently.

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Legality of Oklahoma Supreme Court Appointment Goes Before … Oklahoma Supreme Court

When Justice Steven Taylor recently retired from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Governor Mary Fallin tapped 35-year-old Patrick Wyrick to fill his seat.  Seats on the court are geographically distributed, and Wyrick was among three finalists from the state’s Second Judicial District whose names were submitted to the Governor for final consideration.  The final nominees were chosen by the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission (JNC).

But now Justice Wyrick’s appointment is being challenged by the Oklahoma Chapter of the ACLU, on the grounds that he does not actually reside in the Second Judicial District.  In preliminary arguments last week, Wyrick’s lawyer dismissed the challenge, asserting that the JNC’s selection of the three finalists is effectively unreviewable.  The ACLU countered that no state entity, including the JNC, has all-powerful status.

The decision is now before the state supreme court itself, leaving the eight remaining justices to decide the fate of a potential colleague.  The ACLU has further requested that any sitting justice who recommended Wyrick for a judicial position be recused from considering the case.

Certainly a fascinating example of court interdependence that bears watching.