The pros and cons of canines in the courtroom

This is an interesting article on the use of trained dogs in courthouses to calm abuse victims and others who must testify about highly emotional issues.  It does a nice job laying out the arguments for and against the use of dogs, namely that they can comfort witnesses and elicit better testimony, but they also risk prejudicing juries against criminal defendants by making prosecution witnesses seem more sympathetic.

Louisville, Kentucky court system comes under fire for delays, lazy judges

As late as the 1930s, the federal court system was in administrative disarray.  District (trial) judges were geographically dispersed and unaccountable to any centralized body.  There were no meaningful statistics on judicial workload or output.  Even chief judges rarely communicated or shared ideas among each other.  It took two decades of tireless work from Chief Justices William Howard Taft and Charles Evans Hughes to build a centralized bureaucratic system and create a national culture of accountability.

Nearly a century later, some state courts are apparently still facing the same challenges.  A new study of the Louisville, Kentucky courts reveals a “chaotic” system characterized by unequal judicial workloads, pervasive delay, and limited judicial accountability.  In particular, the study noted that “there is a ‘local legal culture’ in Jefferson County where cases are not expected to be resolved quickly.”

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What just happened? May 2017 roundup

The month in a nutshell: the interdependence between courts and their environment (legislatures, the bar, political parties, and the communities they serve) is on full display.

May 2017 was another busy month for courts and the public they serve.  Throughout the month, we got a taste of the past, present, and future of state judicial elections.  In Illinois, a judge elected last November refused to take his assigned seat on the traffic court bench, an unusual breach of internal norms that eventually led to his resignation.  In Pennsylvania, voters went to the polls to choose their judges, resulting in at least one instance in a non-lawyer ascending to the bench.  And in New York, judicial hopefuls rubbed elbows with the political party bosses who have de facto control over judicial selection at the trial court level.

Efforts to fill vacancies on the federal courts were slow but steady.  President Trump named ten nominees to various federal courts, including three current state judges.  But infighting among Senators raised the specter of revising the traditional “blue-slip” policy that gives home-state Senators effective veto power over nominees.

Internationally, both Israel and Jordan witnessed important reforms to their judiciaries.  Venezuela’s Supreme Court was subjected to U.S. economic sanctions for their role in supporting their country’s corrupt government.  In Ontario, one judge was reprimanded for failing to explain her decisions, while her counterparts pushed back against mandatory sexual assault training.

Courts worldwide made changes that had significant ripple effects on their communities, including courier services, bail bondsmen, and the local bar.

And external forces influenced courts as well.  Judges in Oregon struggled with ways to enforce jury duty obligations, while courts in Kansas discussed whether shield the identity of jurors.  Six state courts signed on to a regional agreement to combat opioid addiction.  Texas judges benefited from two bills, one to increase court security and another making attacks on judges a hate crime.

San Francisco courts stop issuing warrants for “quality of life” infractions

Judges in San Francisco no longer issue warrants for unpaid fines or failure to appear in court when the underlying infraction is a so-called quality of life crime like loitering, sleeping in a park, or urinating in public.  The courts characterize the change as a nod to the reality of the city’s homeless population: many of those cited simply lack the means to pay fines, and jail time is not considered a constructive punishment.

The decision has been criticized by many public officials:

The mayor’s office told local newspapers that judges were shirking their duty and throwing away opportunities to help the homeless.

San Francisco Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran said the court was sending a bad message.

“We get thousands upon thousands of calls a year about quality-of-life concerns by the residents of this city,” he said. “With no consequence now, with none whatsoever, there’s no reason why anyone has to obey the law.”

Cities have long struggled to thread the needle between public health and safety on the one hand, and the humane treatment of the homeless on the other.  It will be interesting to see the effects of the approach taken here.

Technology displaces courthouse couriers

It is no particular surprise that the growth of electronic filing in state and federal courts would lead to a diminution in the need for physical couriers. But this article offers some nice color into how the system has changed, and how remaining courier services stay on their feet (or bikes, as the case may be).

Former Alaska Justice receives O’Connor Award for work on civics education

Retired Alaska Supreme Court Justice Dana Fabe has been awarded the 2017 Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education.  Justice Fabe worked on a series of projects to promote awareness of the courts in schools and among the general public.  The award, given by the National Center for State Courts, recognizes Justice O’Connor’s work in promoting civics awareness since her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2006.

I had the honor of meeting Justice Fabe once, and she is certainly a worthy recipient of this award.