Yesterday, Texas held the first jury trial to be conducted exclusively through Zoom videoconferencing. The one-day summary jury trial was also livestreamed on YouTube.
This represents a major development, given that every other jurisdiction has simply postponed jury trials until courthouses reopen. And judges are increasingly opening to the idea of remote trials in some form. On the other hand, some judges remain steadfastly opposed to trials outside the physical courtroom, and with courthouses beginning to reopen in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen how common videoconference trials will become.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Colorado and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts respectively sent letters to their registered attorneys, informing them of recent measures taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts will be extending its courthouse closures for most matters, including all jury and bench trials, while tolling statutes of limitations through the end of May. Colorado has delegated considerable administrative decisionmaking authority to the chief judge of each judicial district, in acknowledgement of the different circumstances and available resources in each district.
My institution, New England Law Boston, is hiring a full-time Teaching Fellow for a two-year term starting this August. The fellow will teach three courses a year — one or two of which will cover core first-year topics. The fellow will be an integrated member of the full-time faculty.
This is a great opportunity for individuals who are interested in getting into legal academia. New England Law is a great place to work, and our faculty is remarkably supportive of our colleagues as it pertains to teaching, scholarship, or any other aspect of law school life. I encourage interested parties to apply.
The full job posting can be found here.
Last week, Congress passed the CARES Act, which most notably was designed to give a push to the American economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Nestled within that Act was a provision that permitted the Judicial Conference of the United States to determine that “emergency conditions due to the national emergency declared by the President with respect to COVID-19 will materially affect the functioning of the federal courts generally.” Such a finding would then permit chief judges of individual federal district courts to temporarily authorize videoconferences or teleconferences in certain criminal proceedings, solely in response to the coronavirus crisis.
The Judicial Conference made that authorization on Sunday, leaving it now to individual districts to determine whether to implement videoconferencing. It is worth noting that the legislation (which was passed with significant input from the Judicial Conference) is relatively narrow, and applies only to the current COVID-19 emergency. Moreover, the general authorization applies only to certain types of criminal proceedings: in particular, no felony plea or sentencing could be done by video- or teleconference unless the district court makes additional findings that such proceedings (1) cannot be done in person “without seriously jeopardizing public health and safety”, and (2) that “there are specific reasons that the plea or sentencing in that case cannot be further delayed without serious harm to the interests of justice.”
This is an entirely practical step, representing collaboration between Congress and the courts to protect the efficient operation of the criminal justice system. Whether it will open the door for further use of videoconferencing in non-emergency situations, however, is very much unsettled. And the current legislation has drawn criticism in some circles that it reduces much-needed transparency in criminal justice.
Three years and more than 630 posts later…
Whether you’re a loyal reader on brand new to the blog, thanks for coming to The Interdependent Third Branch for news and comment on the judiciary! I’ll look forward to bringing you continued analysis in 2020 and beyond.
It’s primary season for candidates in contested judicial elections all around the country, a process that often brings out the best and the worst in our budding jurists. In California, the worst may be represented (for this cycle, at least) by San Diego Superior Court candidate Shawn McMillan, whose regular posting of raw political and social Facebook memes has drawn sharp criticism. McMillan has recently admitted that he posted “insensitive” material, and argues that he shared them “to spark a conversation.” If that was the goal, it worked: many people are now discussing how his actions do not reflect an acceptable level of judicial temperament and professionalism.
On a more positive note, The Hollywood Reporter conducted an interesting interview with attorney (and L.A. County Superior Court judicial candidate) Troy Slaten, who had a successful childhood acting career on television shows like Cagney & Lacey and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. Slaten comes across as pretty thoughtful about the role of a state trial judge and the oddities of judicial elections. He’s certainly more thoughtful than the interviewer, who at times seems to revel in his own ignorance of the candidates.
Slaten points out in the interview that elections are a viable alternative for aspiring judges, because the politics of judicial appointments can be a substantial roadblock. It’s a fair point. But one might still wonder why Californians tolerate such a sloppy electoral process to select most of the their third branch of state government.
After the close of the impeachment trial of President Trump this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell presented Chief Justice John Roberts with a “golden gavel.” The token is ordinarily presented to Senators who have sat in the presiding chair for 100 hours. Roberts certainly filled that minimal qualification during his many hours presiding over the trial.
I recently took Elizabeth Warren to task for her trial question that crassly challenged the legitimacy of Roberts and the Supreme Court. McConnell’s presentation can be seen as only a slightly more subtle effort to politicize the Chief Justice for partisan gain. True, Roberts did yeoman’s work in presiding over the trial, all the while maintaining his busy day job (which only involves hearing oral arguments, writing opinions, navigating the personalities and needs of his fellow Justices, and managing an entire branch of the federal government). And in a different era, the presentation of the golden gavel might be properly viewed as a sincere token of appreciation. In this deeply partisan environment, however, it primarily exploits the Chief Justice’s participation to court favor with Republicans — a misappropriation of judicial goodwill for partisan gain.