New Chicago judge seeks to choose his own path

Like many organizations, court systems have deliberate processes for acculturating and training new members — a process sometimes referred to as “socialization.”  Forms of court socialization include formal processes like “baby judge” schools to provide training on opinion writing and docket management, as well as informal processes of acclimating new judges to the ins and outs of their jobs.

In Cook County, Illinois, part of the socialization and acclimation process involves assigning new judges to traffic court.  But Judge Richard Cooke, a former private practitioner who won an unopposed judicial election last November, rejected his traffic court assignment and apparently never reported for duty.  Judge Cooke claims a conflict of interest, alleging that he has financial stake in a car wash that cleans city-owned vehicles.  Other are not buying it:

Critics say the tempest is an illustration of all that’s wrong with selecting judges in Cook County — where cash and political connections at times carry more weight than temperament and ability. Daley Center judges say traffic court is the best place for a new judge to learn how to manage a courtroom, master a new area of law and do their job in a setting where the possible damage they can inflict is relatively minimal.

Former top federal prosecutor Carrie Hamilton, who helped prosecute ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, and former Winston & Strawn partner Raymond Mitchell both spent time in traffic court before moving into other assignments.

The court administration initially responded by assigning Judge Cooke only to conduct marriage ceremonies.  With the outcry continuing, however, this week the circuit court’s executive committee sent the issue to the state Judicial Inquiry Board.  This is the first step in a possible disciplinary action against Judge Cooke.  We will follow the story as it develops.

North Carolina court struggle heats up

That escalated quickly.

In light of the North Carolina legislature’s proposal to reduce the size of the state court of appeals from 15 to 12, Judge Douglas McCollough resigned from the court yesterday.  Judge McCullough was due to leave the court next month under the state’s mandatory retirement laws (he is nearing age 72), but chose to leave early so that Governor Roy Cooper could fill his position immediately.

And immediately he did.  Fifteen minutes after Judge McCollough tendered his resignation, the governor nominated John Arrowood to fill the open seat.

Judge McCollough stated that he resigned now — before the legislation could be passed — to increase the likelihood that the court would maintain its current 15 member composition.  “I didn’t want my legacy to be the elimination of the seat,” he said.  But his decision to leave early, which emphasized the institutional health of the court, was still shrouded in political intrigue. Continue reading “North Carolina court struggle heats up”

Legislators and bar association weigh in on Indiana merit selection plan

We previously reported that Indiana legislators are considering a merit selection plan for the judges of Marion County (the Indianapolis area), in light of a Seventh Circuit decision holding the previous election slating process unconstitutional.  Recently, both state legislators and the Indianapolis Bar Association have offered their own opinions of the proposed legislation.

 

Political tug-of-war over North Carolina courts continues

Last month, the North Carolina legislature voted to move all state judicial elections back to partisan contests, overriding a veto by Governor Roy Cooper in the process.  Now a new legislative battle is looming: the reduction in the size of the state’s court of appeals.

North Carolina currently has a 15-member court of appeals, but House Bill 239 would reduce its size to twelve members.  The immediate impact would be that three Republican judges who are nearing mandatory retirement age could not be replaced by Governor Cooper, a Democrat.  The Governor has vetoed the bill, noting correctly that “Having three fewer judges will increase the court’s workload and delay timely appeals.”  The legislature, however, is expected to override the veto.

These issues keep arising in a political context, but the sensible structuring of the courts to allow them to conduct their business should not be a partisan issue.  The North Carolina legislature is playing games with the administration of justice, pure and simple.

 

New York City faces few takers for interim judicial appointments

According to this story, a special counsel for Mayor Bill de Blasio has noted the difficulty of finding qualified applicants to fill interim posts on the New York City Civil Court.  It’s not hard to see why.  Candidates are guaranteed only one year on the bench, after which they must stand for election to keep their positions.  But in New York’s byzantine judicial election system, which is largely run by party bosses and was once flatly characterized by Justice Stevens as “stupid,” excellent service on the bench for a year is no guarantee of future employment.

Consider the problem from the perspective of potential applicants.  To move to the bench, those in private practice would have to give up their clients, essentially depleting years or decades of work in developing a book of business.  It would be professionally negligent, if not career suicide, to allow all your clients to move on in return for a one-year gig on the bench.  Potential applicants in the District Attorney’s office or Public Defender’s office might be able to extract themselves a bit more easily, but face similar risks in moving themselves back and forth from the bench.  As a result, the pool of potential applicants is likely to contain near-retirees or lawyers without much business than it is high-quality attorneys in their prime.

New York, like other states, could resolve the problem by moving away from judicial elections altogether.  Appointed judges would have more confidence in their ability to stay on the bench for a while, given good behavior.

Brooklyn court restructures approach to criminal docket

This is an interesting piece on recent administrative changes made at the Criminal Term of the Brooklyn Supreme Court to combat backlog and process cases more efficiently.  Efficiency in case processing is often overemphasized, and can be stressed to the detriment of other important factors of court productivity.  But it is still a very visible part of court operations, and accordingly very important.  Courts should be applauded for seeking out internal ways to handle their duties efficiently.

Iowa considers closing courthouses

Facing a budget crunch, both court administrators and state legislators in Iowa are admitting the possibility that they might close or consolidate courthouses in the future, leaving some of Iowa’s counties without any courthouse at all.  Technological advances might make some closings more palatable, as materials can be filed and hearings conducted electronically.

There is no plan in the works to consolidate court services, said State Court Administrator David Boyd, who is set to retire in September after four decades of working for Iowa’s court system. And there are state laws barring certain moves, such as creating regional litigation centers or moving clerk offices out of county seats.

But Boyd admits there may come a time when offering court services in all 99 counties could be reconsidered.

“I really do hope at some point we are in fact considered to be a separate and equal branch of government and properly funded,” he said. “That’s not to say that we have to continue to do things in a particular way just because we’ve always done it that way.”

 

 

Update on state legislation affecting the courts

State legislatures continue to propose and advance bills that will impact their respective court systems.  Here are some of the latest developments:

  • Indiana’s proposal to convert Marion County (Indianapolis) to a merit selection system is heading to conference committee.  The latest version of the bill calls for a 14-member nominating committee to choose three final candidates for the governor’s selection; four of the committee members would be chosen from voters.  Previous coverage of the Indiana bill and its history is here.
  • In Arkansas, a new bill would change the way state judges are elected in Cumberland County Superior Court.  The current election system grants seats on the bench to the top two vote-getters among all candidates.  The bill would require candidates to declare which of the two judicial seats they are seeking.
  • The Florida House of Representatives has passed an amendment to the state constitution that would impose term limits on state appellate judges, including supreme court justices.  This is a terrible idea, but happily it is still in its infancy.  The state senate would also have to approve the move, and then voters would have to approve it in 2018.  Similar efforts in others states have been defeated in recent years after they were exposed for the transparent political proposals that they were.
  • Nebraska’s unicameral legislature has advanced a bill to raise judicial pay in the state.

 

A refreshingly honest take on courtroom cameras

Judge Dale Harris has an op-ed discussing his first experience with cameras in his courtroom, stemming from Minnesota’s pilot project to allow recording of certain sentencing proceedings.  It’s a usefully honest take:

There is not much of a question in my mind that the cameras had some effect on the participants. I could tell I was measuring my words more carefully than usual, and I am pretty sure the attorneys were as well. Although most court proceedings are open to the public, human beings just tend to act differently when they know they are on camera. It is also hard to pull out a couple short clips that accurately depict a complex hearing. Those are the primary reasons I was not a fan of the pilot program.

For those of us who work in the courthouse every day, however, it is probably too easy to take familiarity of the judicial process for granted. Many people never see the inside of a courtroom, so having this type of access through the media might provide some insight that those people would not otherwise get. The media is merely responding to that perceived need.

As a government entity, the court system always has to strive for greater transparency. The question in the near future, as the pilot project is evaluated, is whether these benefits amount to a net gain. If the answer is “yes,” then I fully would expect the pilot program to be expanded to more types of court hearings. Stay tuned.

Cameras probably do have some effect on participants, just as a live audience would.  But if the end result is a sentencing characterized by more measured words and a careful tone, the cameras pilot should indeed be considered a success.

Minnesota courts continue innovations regarding self-represented litigants

State courts have increasingly tried to keep up with the growth of self-represented litigants. Concrete numbers are elusive, in part due to varying definitions of “self-represented.”* But studies undertaken by individual states clearly demonstrate the burgeoning self-represented population in probate, domestic violence, family law, and even run-of-the-mill civil cases. Federal courts, too, report that almost 86,000 civil cases were filed by a self-represented plaintiff in Fiscal Year 2016 (most of them prisoner petitions).

This interesting article discusses the efforts of the Minnesota state courts to address the growing numbers of self-represented parties:

It’s not uncommon for pro se litigants to arrive at court with paperwork that’s either the wrong form or filled out incorrectly. These kinds of mistakes can gum up the system, court officials say. Now judges can sometimes send people straight from the courtroom to a self-help center.

“It helps people feel like they’ve been heard,” District Judge Bethany Fountain Lindberg said. “It also eliminates unnecessary hearings.”

While the number of court cases overall in Minnesota has decreased since 2010, the percentage of litigants proceeding without a lawyer remains high. Excluding traffic and parking cases, nearly 80 percent of cases heard in Minnesota district courts last year involved a pro se litigant at some point, state data show.

The reason is often financial, court officials say. The rise of the do-it-yourself web culture may also be behind the trend.

“It used to be that everyone had attorneys,” said Mike Moriarity, 10th Judicial District administrator. “Now there’s a spirit that people want to try doing it themselves.

* The Court Statistics Project, maintained by the National Center for State Courts, tracks self-represented litigation through a common definition, but the numbers are not available for all states.