No vacancies, but a docket crisis nonetheless

I have been writing recently about the vacancy crisis in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, which has only 11 active judges despite a statutory entitlement to 17 (and a Judicial Conference recommendation for 20). But docket challenges can occur even where a court has its full complement of judges. This story highlights the docket overload in the Middle District of Louisiana, which has all three of its authorized judges in place but which still struggles to manage its docket, one of the heaviest in the nation.

Happily, it appears that Senator John Kennedy is continuing to push for more resources for the district. But in our fractured age, when every judicial appointment has taken on a (misplaced) political tint, it’s nearly impossible to expect that Congress will adequately address the resource need.

A fabulous look inside a “traveling court”

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific piece on the day-to-day workings of New York City’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, a court that deals with nearly 1 million cases a year but remains virtually unknown. The court is charged mostly with adjudicating minor criminal offenses and regulatory violations, like errant recyclables and excessive noise. But the job is important: many people who do not address a summons promptly can later find themselves in civil court with much larger fines.

The court has taken an aggressively friendly approach to encourage the accused to show up and contest their case, advertising its existence at swimming pools and community events, and even offering tote bags. And it’s worth it to show up — almost 50% of those who do win their cases.

“We have one goal,” said Deputy Commissioner John Castelli. “To ensure people get due process.”

I absolutely love this. A taste of due process at this level ensures justice and vastly increases public appreciation for the courts and the legal system.

(Access to the story may require subscription.)

 

Louisiana raises judicial salaries

Louisiana legislators voted overwhelmingly last week to raise the salaries of state judges by 2.5% in the coming year. If funds permit, judges would continue to receive equivalent pay raises for each of the four years after that as well.

The source of the funding struck me as noteworthy:

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed to cover the first year of pay raises for judges — at an estimated cost of $1.8 million — from its substantial cash reserves. It’s unclear whether judges will continue to tap reserves or turn to state taxpayers to cover future raises, which could cost as much as $9.5 million per year if all five annual pay hikes are awarded.

I thought that judicial salaries typically came from funds controlled by the legislature. It’s quite interesting that salaries are to be paid (at last initially) out of the state supreme court’s “substantial” independent funds.

Massachusetts set to lift ban on cell phones in courthouses

Following the recommendation of its Access to Justice Commission, the Massachusetts Trial Court Department is taking immediate steps to lift the ban on cell phones on state courthouses.

The Commission’s report

cited hardships such as the inability of self-represented litigants to present photos or text messages as evidence to a judge, to consult their calendars, to reach child care providers, or to transact other “essential” business.

The recommendations of the working group include a full review of all courthouse bans to determine whether they are justified, and a pilot program to test the use of magnetically locked security pouches.

“Instead of using a strategy that relies on prohibiting the possession of cell phones as a condition of entry, each courthouse should employ a strategy, tailored to its security needs, that relies on regulating and controlling the use of cell phones within the building,” the authors of the report wrote.

This seems like a sensible step in the right direction. The made sense to ban phones in an earlier era, where the potential distraction might outweigh their value. But the near necessity of cell phones today–for child care and emergency communications, as memory and scheduling devices, and as carriers of critical personal information–merits a different response.

 

 

Attorneys in India protest court’s decision to work through summer months

Changing the culture of a court–to promote efficiency, fairness, or dignified treatment of the parties–has been a program of serious study in the United States for at least half a century. But changing court culture is not merely a matter of changing judicial attitudes. All of the key players must share the new vision, including court staff, attorneys, and court users.

The trial courts in Vadodara, India are finding that out the hard way. Having declared that they will work through the summer to whittle down a docket of over 37,000 civil cases, the Vadodara courts were greeted with protests from some attorneys who had already made vacation plans. Those attorneys filed an “appeal” with the Gujarat High Court, seeking clarification that they in fact do not need to attend scheduled summer hearings. Among the reasons for seeking clarification: one hearing conflicted with an attorney’s personal naturopathy treatment.

India’s docket crisis is legendary and troubling. But judges cannot resolve these issues without the cooperation of the court system’s other key members.

Courts are using text messages to remind defendants to appear

The AP explains that more than twelve state court systems are embracing text messages to remind defendants to show up for critical hearings and trials. It seems to work: a pilot program in New York City cut no-shows by 26 percent.

The opioid crisis and the state courts

The Indianapolis Star has published an interesting op-ed from Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Tennessee State Court Administrator Deborah Taylor Tate, exploring (at a high level) how the national opioid epidemic has affected state courts. A snippet:

[O]ne fact remains: the state court justice system is now the primary referral source for addiction treatment in the country.

This reality has put enormous strain on our nation’s state courts, many of which have been overwhelmed by growing dockets and shrinking resources. In a recent survey of chief justices and state court administrators, 55 percent ranked the opioid epidemic’s impact on the courts as severe. The survey results are unsurprising, given the complexity of opioid cases: it takes an enormous amount of time to figure out what’s best for people who are addicted, how to care for their children, and what resources are available for them. And those who are placed in a treatment program with court oversight may remain involved with the court for years.

The courts are often the place of last resort for problems facing society, and have no choice but to address those problems creatively and (usually) with limited budgets. The opioid crisis is certainly playing out that way.