National Constitution Center hosts program on Judicial Independence and the Federal Courts

The National Constitution Center has posted video of its entire program on Judicial Independence and the Federal Courts. It features an all-star group of panelists. I started watching a bit of the second panel (moderated by Jeffrey Rosen), and it is terrific. I will surely watch all three panels in short order. Highly recommended.

A spate of frightening threats against U.S. judges

A number of stories in the last few days have revealed a disturbing collection of verbal threats to judges, many occurring in the courtroom. Happily, no one was harmed, and the perpetrators have been charged and/or convicted. But yikes. Even accounting for the mental and emotional imbalance of those making the threats, no one should have to tolerate this in his or her workplace.

Shutdown starting to affect federal court operations

Although the federal court system managed to find sufficient “no year” funding to stay open one more week (until January 18), the ongoing federal government shutdown has begun to affect the system’s daily operations. Several district courts are reportedly staying some civil cases, especially those involving the U. S. government as a party. Courts are also cutting back on operational spending such as travel, supplies, and new equipment.

All court employees are continuing to receive full pay as of now, but if the shutdown continues beyond the 18th, non-essential employees would be furloughed and essential employees will continue to work without a paycheck. In small district courts like the Northern District of Iowa, staffing is already sufficiently thin that all employees would be considered essential even if funds were to run out.

As bad as this news is for the courts, it dramatically illustrates the importance and wisdom of the AO’s internal budgeting operations. As I have discussed elsewhere, it was not until the late 1930s that the federal court system obtained control over its own budget. Even though the courts cannot control how much money they receive from Congress, the ability to manage that money with forethought is exactly why they have been able to weather the shutdown (at least for now) while other federal government offices have closed or reduced operations.

Consider, for example, the dire situation at the Justice Department, where the Antitrust and Civil Divisions already have reportedly furloughed more than half of their staffs. As a Bloomberg story explains:

A continued shutdown could seriously hamper some of the civil division’s broad and crucial mandates that range from ensuring healthy market competition and weeding out Medicare fraud to defending the U.S. in lawsuits and recouping money for the Treasury. The effect could then spill over into the department’s criminal division and federal courts, a scenario that could jeopardize law enforcement nationwide.

Not good news. Not good at all.

 

On exasperated judges

This short opinion by United States District Judge Vanessa Gilmore, bemoaning the parties’ “whiny letters” and chastising counsel to “Please stop trying to become my least favorite lawyers” has been making the rounds over the past couple of weeks. It is noteworthy because judges do not normally write like this, either in style or substance. They may think it–judges are human, after all–but to put it in an opinion for the world to see adds a dramatic, and intentional, touch.

This is not the first judicial opinion to call out the attorneys for conduct or argument that the judge finds annoying. Used judiciously (no pun intended), an occasional sprinkling of exasperation in an opinion can be very effective. It humanizes the judge–who among us hasn’t experienced the frustration of someone wasting our time?–and it underscores the judge’s role as guardian of the court system and the legal process. As the most visible members of the court system, judges must often police the system’s other users and remind them of professional and community standards. A carefully considered dose of exasperation can do the trick.

Here is an example of what I mean: In this 2017 opinion rejecting a proffered plea deal between the federal government and a corporate criminal defendant, U.S. District Judge William Young began:

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight.

Period. End of paragraph. Not the standard way to begin an opinion, to be sure. But that line (and a few others similar in tone) perfectly captured the court’s incredulity at the parties’ proposal. It also captured the court’s belief that allowing the specific form of corporate plea deal proposed by the parties would be detrimental to the public. Despite the occasional bits of snark, the opinion plainly speaks not just for its author but for the community that the law is intended to protect.

But it is also easy to go too far. As a law student, I read with amazement the colorful beatdowns of seemingly incompetent and evasive lawyers by U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent. No infraction or argument was too small to avoid Judge Kent’s notice. He berated counsel for drafting pleadings as if written in crayon, and mocked others for seeking to transfer the case out of Texas. His opinions were sarcastic and funny, but they were also cruel, and unnecessarily so. Rather than raising the bar for legal practitioners, they ridiculed the legal profession itself. (Judge Kent’s final coup de grace was his impeachment and imprisonment in 2009 for sexually abusing two female employees.)

Expressions of judicial exasperation can be uplifting, humanizing, or debasing. At their best, they identify the judge as a human being possessing better-than-average wisdom and professionalism, if not infinite patience. At their worst, they reveal the judge to be all too human and unable to conceal contempt.

It is difficult to always be the adult in the room, especially in this age where many of our most prominent citizens are prone to public tantrums. But always being the adult is the essence of the judicial role. Judge Gilmore’s order may elicit a certain amount of personal sympathy among her readers, but it does little to advance respect for the judiciary as a whole.

Judicial reforms introduced in West Virginia

In the wake of several scandals that rocked its supreme court and led to a number of impeachments, West Virginia has introduced a series of reforms to improve public confidence in its judiciary. This week, Chief Justice Beth Walker updated the state legislature on the court’s internal reforms, including new travel and financial policies to combat the budgetary abuse that was endemic in the court until just a few months ago.

Separately, the state’s Judicial Investigation Commission has asked candidates in judicial elections to call on third parties to stop running false or misleading ads against their opponents, and to disavow any false or misleading statements that are made. While this opinion will be difficult to enforce–especially in a tightly-contested race–it would be refreshing for candidates to commit to it. There is little benefit to winning a judicial election, only to see public confidence plummet in the judiciary because the candidates are being routinely trashed on TV.

 

Venezuelan Supreme Court justice flees country, exposes Maduro regime

A second Venezuelan judge in the last fourteen months had fled the country, further exposing the Maduro regime’s efforts to exert total control over the state’s judiciary. Christian Zerpa, a former party loyalist who was recently appointed to the Venezuelan Supreme Court, surfaced in Florida after his defection and gave a taste of the regime’s interference with the judicial process.

Zerpa surfaced publicly in Miami on Sunday, describing how he received directions from the influential first lady Cilia Flores on how to rule in politically sensitive cases.

As a newly installed justice, he recounted being summoned to the court and told to sign off on a key ruling without first reviewing its details. It disqualified three elected representatives of Amazonas state from taking their seats in congress following the opposition’s sweep of legislative elections in 2015.

The key ruling cemented Maduro’s power, preventing the opposition from amassing a two-third super majority that would have severely curtailed Maduro’s power.

Zerpa apologized for propping up Maduro’s government as long as he did, saying that he feared being jailed as a dissident where his life would be put at risk.

“I will not be able to return to Venezuela,” Zerpa said. “I am a dead man.”

 

Mexico’s Supreme Court voluntarily slashes its own pay

Last month, the new President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, publicly criticized the salaries of his country’s judges. It is now being reported that in response, the eleven justices of Mexico’s Supreme Court voted internally to reduce their pay by 25%.

Although the court said that its decision was made “in the interest of efficiency, savings, transparency and honoring the constitution,” this is plainly a response to Lopez Obrador’s relentless public statements on the subject. It’s a clear example of how external pressures can affect internal decision-making about court administration.