El Salvador’s authoritarian regime ousts country’s top judges

Disturbing news over the weekend from El Salvador, where authoritarian president Nayib Bukele and the ruling Nuevas Ideas party removed five judges from the country’s supreme court. The judges were immediately replaced with new judges loyal to the regime.

The move drew significant international criticism, including a warning from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the necessity of an independent judiciary in a democracy. On Twitter, Bukule responded, “We are cleaning house … and this doesn’t concern you.”

When autocrats seek to consolidate their power, their first move is often to undermine or replace the judiciary. Just as the citizens of Venezuela or Poland.

Post-COVID, an expanded toolbox for the courts

What will court proceedings look like once the coronivirus pandemic has run its course and society reopens in earnest? Already, courthouses are reopening for jury trials and hearings — a critical step for transparency and due proces. But as Judge Jack Zouhary explains at the IAALS Blog, videoconferencing is not going away. Rather, the courts will likely use videoconferencing for appropriate proceedings — everything from status conferences to settlement discussions.

The expectation of continued videoconferencing is welcome, but it is just the beginning of a larger transformation. The ongoing ability to access the courts through Zoom raises important questions about recording hearings, public transparency, the use of video for purposes of judicial performance evaluation and appeal, and so on. Put differently, new challenges are on the horizon. In the meantime, we are witnessing the true birth of America’s twenty-first century court system.

In Memoriam: Mary J. Mullarkey

Today brings the sad news of the passing of Mary Mullarkey, a member of the Colorado Supreme Court for 23 years and Chief Justice of the Court for twelve of those years. Chief Justice Mullarkey was an outstanding judge and a tireless leader of the state’s third branch.

I was fortunate enough to clerk on the Colorado Supreme Court during Mullarkey’s time as Chief Justice, and saw what a wonderful mentor and colleague she was. She was a giant in the state’s legal community, and will be sorely missed.

Minnesota’s federal court will continue with Zoom trials even after COVID

In an interview with Law360, Chief Judge John Tunheim of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota said that his district will continue with civil trials over Zoom even after the coronavirus pandemic no longer makes them necessary. A snippet of the interview:

Our plan at this point is to resume jury trials, and in-person hearings to the extent necessary, on May 3. All of our staff will be vaccinated and beyond the two-week period following the second shot, so we think that by May 1 we should be in pretty good shape for jurors coming in.

I do plan to continue, and urge our other judges to continue, to do as many hearings on Zoom as possible. It’s worked really, really well, and we’re still not in a position where we want a lot of people coming into the courthouse.

I think using Zoom is a very effective tool for bench trials. For jury trials it’s a little more complicated, as we know. But we have a backlog of civil cases that we’re probably not going to get to right away because of the criminal case backlog. We are, for the time being, using only two courtrooms, one in Minneapolis, one in St. Paul, both with substantial amounts of plexiglass. Only using two courtrooms makes it hard to catch up.

I expect to see much more along these lines in the coming weeks and months.

EU sues Poland over 2019 judicial law

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been working assiduously to forge a politically subservient judiciary since 2017, when it first passed legislation to purge certain judges and install others favorable to its policies. These policies have been regularly condemned by Poland’s neighbors, and have already led to lawsuits. Now the EU is taking the next step: suing the Polish state in the European Court of Justice, arguing that the most recent round of changes to the Polish legal system undermine judicial independence.

Deutsche Welle explains:

At issue is the Polish law affecting the judiciary that came into force in February last year.

It prevents judges from referring questions of law to the ECJ. It also created a body that rules on judges’ independence without regard to EU law.

The bill also oversaw the creation of a “disciplinary chamber” to oversee Polish supreme court judges. This chamber — criticized for its close ties to the government — has the power to lift their immunity, allowing for judges to face criminal proceedings or cuts to their salaries.

One judge, Igor Tuleya, faced suspension and a 25% salary cut in November. He was among the justices to resist the changes to the legal system.

The Commission wants the ECJ to suspend the 2019 law as well as the disciplinary chamber and the decisions it has made concerning judges’ immunity, “to prevent the aggravation of serious and irreparable harm inflicted to judicial independence and the EU legal order.”

Poland has denied any breach of judicial independence, and challenges the EU’s power to regulate its internal judicial affairs.

Another chapter in a distressing saga.

Biden tips his hand on the next Supreme Court nominee

Keep an eye on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the newest nominee to the D.C. Circuit.

Ketanji Brown JacksonPresident Biden has issued his first list of intended judicial nominees, mostly to federal district courts across the country. They are a highly accomplished and — as best I can tell — highly qualified group of nominees. 

Perusing the list, I’m going to call my shot now and predict that whenever an opening on the Supreme Court occurs, the  President’s first nominee will be Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Judge Jackson is already a well-respected federal district judge, and is set to be nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She therefore follows the path of other budding judicial stars who were elevated to the circuit courts before an eventual Supreme Court nomination by the same president. (Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the most recent example.) Judge Jackson also checks all the boxes: she is brilliant, accomplished, hard-working, well-respected, relatively young, and (important for Biden’s camp, at least) a Black woman. She is also kind, professional, and gracious — at least that is the clear memory I have from the time we overlapped as litigation associates at Goodwin Procter nearly twenty years ago.

Predictably, much of the mainstream media is focusing on the race and gender of the nominees, rather than their exceptional talent and qualifications. This does a remarkable disservice both to the nominees and the public. It reduces a lifetime of individual hard work, achievement — and yes, most assuredly some luck — to a crass demographic calculation. And it communicates that their skills and abilities are secondary to their immutable characteristics, a message that can only reduce confidence in judicial decisions and the court system as a whole.  

Congratulations to all the nominees. The country will better off with your skill and talent filling our open judgeships.

Portland’s federal courthouse attacked again

The Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, which sustained significant damage in last summer’s Antifa riots, was attacked again over the weekend — just three days after federal officials removed the non-scalable fencing that had surrounded the courthouse since August. (The fencing has since returned.)

As shown in the video directly below, vandals broke courthouse windows and covered the building with obscene graffiti.

 

The Oregonian has a powerful article chronicling the damage, not only the the physical building but also to the public psyche.

Among the graffiti left on the front of the courthouse was a message that said in red, “NAZI’S WORK HERE.”

“As a first generation American whose parents lived through the horrors of World War II, in England and in Norway, you can’t say anything more offensive than alleging that the people who work inside that building, who I know and love, are Nazis,” Acting U.S. Attorney Scott Asphaug said Sunday.

“That building represents justice,” he said. “This is where people come to have their civil rights heard.”

The staff, attorneys and judges have continued to conduct courthouse operations throughout the past year’s mass protests, and will continue to do so undeterred, Asphaug said. Asphaug said he supports the rights of people to protest and make their voices heard but doesn’t support riotous behavior and the damage to the courthouse.

“The people who work in that building are a lot stronger than graffiti and broken windows,” he said, “and they’ll continue to do the important work they do.”

Anerican institutions may be imperfect, but they are grounded in time-honored truths about the value of liberty, opportunity, and equality. Their assailants, by contrast, are little more than common thugs and intellectual frauds.

State courts come under legislative assault

State legislators are trying to politicize their judiciaries for short-term gain. Courts, their users, and the public must speak up to stop them.

The first weeks of the 2021 legislative session have seen an extraordinary number of proposals to overhaul the selection of judges or otherwise affect the composition of state judiciaries. Among them:

In Montana, Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the state’s judicial nominating commission, giving the governor direct appointment power over district court judges and state supreme court justices. The nominating commission, in place for nearly half a century, was expressly implemented to depoliticize the judicial appointment process. Despite an outpouring of criticism for the proposal, which is widely seen as a partisan gambit by new Governor Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators, the bill passed the legislature last week. If signed by the governor, the bill would make Montana a national outlier in its refusal to use an independent nominating commission.

In Alaska, a very similar bill would eliminate the role of the state’s nominating commission for the appointment of judges on the district courts and state court of appeals. Senate Bill 14 was introduced by Republican senator Mike Shower in late January. As in Montana, the bill has been panned as “a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska’s system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics.” Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, similarly criticized the bill as undermining a well-established and respected judicial selection process. Continue reading “State courts come under legislative assault”

Are Supreme Court amicus briefs posing a transparency problem?

That’s the question raised in this excellent Wall Street Journal piece by Jess Bravin. He reports that the number of amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court has risen dramatically in recent years, with many of the briefs coming from opaque interest groups. Current Supreme Court rules only require that an amicus brief disclose whether a party or its lawyer funded the brief, or whether anyone else outside the named party contributed to its preparation. But this leaves plenty of room for little-known groups to file briefs, which may carry outsized influence with the Court.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is pushing for greater transparency in amicus briefs. I have criticized Senator Whitehouse routinely on this blog for his often perverse behaviors toward the federal courts, but on this issue we agree: greater transparency would benefit everyone.

Still, the courts would be better off modifying the policy themselves, rather than sitting back and allowing Whitehouse and his compatriots to force a legislative solution.

A nice primer on how federal funding reaches state and local courts

Pew Charitable Trusts has a very informative interview with American University’s Karen Lash about how to leverage federal pass-through funding to improve state and local civil justice systems. It’s a useful read for anyone who wants to better understand how federal spending trickles down to local entities.