Tweeting judges: a cautionary tale

A little over a year ago, I took a close look at the phenomenon of judges using Twitter. After examining the professional and ethical responsibilities of the judiciary, I concluded that “judges should not be afraid of using Twitter, as long as they employ it appropriately and with discretion.”

That conclusion still holds, and most judges who are regular Twitter users find a way to make it work without compromising their judicial roles.  But Twitter is still a dangerous medium, as Kansas judge Jeffry Jack is learning this week. Judge Jack, currently a Labette County trial judge, has been nominated by Governor Laura Kelly to the state’s Court of Appeals. But his nomination has run into strong opposition from state lawmakers, after they discovered a number of profane and inflammatory tweets from his account, many of which were directed to President Trump and other prominent conservatives.

To be sure, some Republican lawmakers were already predisposed to vote against Jack’s nomination, based on purely partisan factors such as his apparent support for gun control and the Affordable Care Act. But even Democratic legislators were taken aback by the ferocity and crudeness of Jack’s tweets:

Sen. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat who attended a Friday news conference where Kelly nominated Jack, said some of the tweets do not demonstrate a proper judicial temperament.

“If these are genuine, I find them to be deeply troubling coming from a sitting judge,” Miller said.

Exactly. Judges, like all people, are entitled to their political views, and there is nothing wrong with holding those views very strongly. But the judiciary depends on its members displaying an even-handed temperament and maintaining a high level of professional behavior even in their personal lives. Judge Jack’s tweets do not display that temperament, and they raise questions not only about his fitness for an appellate court position, but also for maintaining his current trial job.

Yesterday, Governor Kelly withdrew Jack’s nomination. But don’t be surprised if his tweets become an issue if seeks to retain his trial seat when his current term ends in 2020.

This posted was edited on March 20 to correct the spelling of Judge Jack’s name.

The Alien Terrorist Removal Court? What’s that?

The Alien Terrorist Removal Court (ATRC) is a special federal court, created by Congress in 1996 to review applications by the government for the removal of non-citizens who are suspected of being terrorists. It is populated by five federal district judges, who hold their position on that court in addition to their regular appointments.

Never heard of it? That’s not surprising, since the court has never met in its 23 years of existence. And that’s because the government itself has never once applied to the court to remove a resident alien suspected of terrorism. The judges on the court don’t even know where they would meet if an application was filed, since no specific courthouse has been designated for their deliberations.

Why has the court never been called into order? For one thing, its powers and jurisdiction are arguably unconstitutional:

“I honestly don’t know why it has not decided any cases, but there has been speculation that concerns about its constitutionality may have played a part,” said Robert F. Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia who is familiar with the court.

Turner, a national security expert, said when the government is dealing with permanent resident aliens, legitimate constitutional issues have been raised. He said he believes constitutional complaints concern secret evidence, like sensitive intelligence sources and methods that identified the individual as a terrorist, versus the Sixth Amendment’s right to see evidence and confront witnesses.

The Bristol Herald Courier has a terrific piece explaining the origins, administration, and constitutional challenges facing of one of the least-known courts in the country. Well worth the read!

Federal court filings increased by seven percent last year

That’s one immediate and important takeaway from the Annual Report of the Director of the U.S. Courts, published today. I shall have more to say about this once I have digested it — but business appears to be booming.

Conference notes that legal professionals are at high risk for mental health issues

I have chronicled several recent stories discussing the mental health issues faced by lawyers and judges. It is no secret that the practice of law can be a stressful job, featuring (as it does) time pressure, a sometimes-unhealthy desire for excellence at all costs, and fact patterns that often reveal humanity at its worst.

There are resources for lawyers and judges to help with some of the consequences of these pressures–be they substance abuse, anxiety, depression, or countless other mental health concerns. And increasingly, those who have experienced these conditions are finding the courage to speak about it publicly. The Daily Business Review has a good story on a recent conference that brought these issues out into the open.

Like first responders, medical professionals, and social workers, lawyers and judges often find themselves on the front lines of society’s most difficult and troubling moments. There is no shame in seeking help to relieve some of the mental burden that they carry home from those encounters.

A call for better ethics training for New York’s town and village justices

The practices of New York State’s “village justices” have long been the subject of deep concern. These judges are empowered to hear a variety of low-stakes cases at the local level. But most lack any legal training, resulting in poor practices, questionable procedures, and misapplications of the law.

Perhaps this type of local magistrate made sense in the nineteenth century, when it was necessary to have a judicial figure in each town or village to address on-the-spot legal disputes. But the continued practice raises a variety of significant, ongoing ethics concerns.

In 2006, the New York Times published an expose on the questionable practices of village justices, finding examples of judicial intimidation, open racism, jailing defendants capriciously and without bail, and willful ignorance of applicable law.

Not much happened in response. But this week, the issue roared back once again. New York State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct published a report emphasizing (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the most frequent and common ethical lapses in the state judiciary are committed by town and village justices who lack legal training. Examples of such lapses include posting case details on social media, and failing to create a record of any court proceedings for eight years.

There are currently no plans to change the system. No surprise there, either.

What should we expect when Justices Alito and Kagan testify before Congress this week?

Political theater, to be sure — but of the potentially useful variety.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan will reportedly testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on financial services and general government on March 7, to discuss the Court’s annual budget request. It will be the first public hearing on the Court’s budget since 2015; over the last several years, Justices have met privately with Congressional leaders.

The tradition of federal judges (including Supreme Court Justices) testifying before Congress dates back at least to the 1920s, when then-Chief Justice Taft and selected colleagues repeatedly appeared before Congress to discuss pending legislation affecting the courts. But that was in an era before television cameras and Twitter. The purpose and meaning of such hearings has long changed, and the presence of Justices, sans robes, at the witness table is sufficiently unusual these days as to attract quite a bit of attention.

Even though the scheduled testimony is technically about the Court’s budget, everyone seems to understand that financial minutiae will only be a small part of the discussion. Subcommittee members are likely to use the rare opportunity for direct interaction with the Justices to broach a variety of unrelated subjects, including an ethics code for the Supreme Court, the introduction of courtroom cameras, and the federal court system’s new workplace conduct policies.

The hearing itself is unlikely to break any new ground. The Justices have a strong tradition of circling the wagons on their internal matters, and Justice Kagan in particular has a smooth temperament that helps her avoid stepping into controversy. (She did manage to effectively wrangle the Harvard Law faculty for several years, after all.) Alito and Kagan both understand the nature of the production, as well as the ultimate goal: to get out unscathed.

To the extent Congress and the courts need to coordinate on important issues, one can only hope that they are doing so behind the scenes. The courts have been understandably cautious about communicating directly with Congress on matters of legal interpretation, given separation of powers concerns. But administrative issues are a different animal altogether, and there is ample space for the courts to work with Congress on funding and operational issues which are of important interest to both branches.

Still, while Thursday’s hearing may not produce much that is immediately newsworthy, it is still an important exercise. The Supreme Court has been famously reticent to align many of its practices with modern public expectations, from failing to adopt an ethics code to rejecting calls for courtroom cameras. Congressional hearings put the Justices on the spot to justify the Court’s positions in a public forum, thereby forcing the Court to periodically reconsider whether its existing practices help or harm its public legitimacy.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the federal court system should allow itself to be bullied by Congress or public demand, but there is still room for continuous improvement. The occasional public hearing can be a useful pressure point to bring that improvement to fruition.

 

 

The risk of upending settled doctrinal expectations

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Courts strive to avoid sudden, tectonic shifts in doctrine. The legitimacy of their decisionmaking depends upon two of the values that mark the rule of law: consistency and predictability. Absent adequate justification for a doctrinal shift and judicial decisionmaking starts to look like it is based more on caprice than reason.

The U.S. Supreme Court is not immune from the risks associated with such shifts—indeed, in two separate opinions in the past few weeks, Justice Clarence Thomas has argued that the Supreme Court consider radical changes in approach to long settled constitutional doctrines.

Concurring in the denial of certiorari in McKee v. Cosby, Thomas explained that, in an appropriate case, the court should reconsider the precedents underlying the First Amendment rule that public figures cannot pursue damages for defamation absent a showing of “‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that [the statement] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and its progeny, Thomas argued, “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” that the Court “should not continue to reflexively apply.”

More recently, in Garza v. Idaho, Thomas (joined this time by Justice Neil Gorsuch) dissented from the majority’s ruling that, notwithstanding that a criminal defendant has waived the right to certain bases for appeal, prejudice should be presumed when his attorney does not pursue an appeal after being requested to do so. Thomas disagreed not only with the ruling but the basic premise of Sixth Amendment doctrine—that criminal defendants have a right to effective counsel. No modern precedent, he argued, including Gideon v. Wainwright, sought to square this rule “with the original meaning of the ‘right … to have the Assistance of Counsel.’” He suggested that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the accused only “the services of an attorney,” and assumptions to the contrary conflict “with the government’s legitimate interest in the finality of criminal judgments.”

Justice Thomas’s originalist approaches to defamation under the First Amendment and the right to counsel under the Sixth may be criticized on substantive grounds. As to the former, consider Eugene Volokh’s conclusion that “constitutional constraints on speech-based civil liability have deep roots, stretching back to the Framing era” and Sullivan is “entirely consistent with original meaning.” As to the latter, consider the textualist argument that the very existence of a right to counsel privileges the individual’s interest over a governmental interest in finality, and that ineffective counsel undermines the integrity of this premise.

Even setting aside these substantive concerns, Thomas’s opinions preview what Chief Justice Roberts may look forward to should more justices be appointed who share not just Thomas’s interpretive approach, but his willingness to cast aside settled rules in favor of a return to the presumed original understanding of the constitution. It is not just a dispute, in other words, about meaning, but about the way in which the Supreme Court goes about the business of constitutional rulemaking.

A radical alteration in settled doctrine runs the risk that the Court’s decisionmaking is unmoored from the past, and that the justices cannot be counted on to create reasonable expectations for the future. It is not just about a loss of respect, but the dilution of a hard-earned legitimacy. One of the reasons the American people abide by the decisions of unelected judges about the meaning of our most sacred secular text is because, agree or disagree, there is in most areas of constitutional law a continuity that has allowed public and private institutions and individuals alike to rely upon expectations the Court itself has set about the boundaries of its reach—expectations that allow us to make our own plans and plot own courses.

To return to one of Roberts’s favorite analogies: no umpire who decided, one day, to honor the strike zone as it existed in baseball’s infancy would last long on the job. The players, the pitching, the equipment, the field—all are different today. Umpiring has accounted for these differences, as managers and players well know. They have expectations about the range of possible calls an umpire might make when the ball hurtles toward the catcher’s glove, and they trust that those expectations will hold true from game to game, and across the seasons. Chief Justice Roberts has intuited that Americans rightly expect the same of their Supreme Court—and that they likely would find ways to marginalize the Court if it were otherwise.