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.

 

 

Massachusetts dallies with, and rejects, judicial term limits

My colleague Lawrence Freidman — a sometime guest contributor to this blog — praises the decision here:

The measure the Committee rejected proposed amending the state constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years by the governor’s council. In an interview with The Lowell Sun, the author of the “Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution Relative to the Term of Judicial Officers,” Representative Tom Golden, stated that the goal was judicial accountability, particularly for those judges “who consistently make poor legal decisions. 

There are two problems with this justification. First, it is far from clear that there ever could be universal agreement – or even agreement among the members of the Governor’s Council – as to the definition of a “poor legal decision.” It is a fact that, in every civil and criminal case, one party is bound to be disappointed by some judicial ruling, whether it concerned scheduling, procedural mattersor the admissibility of evidence—not to mention the end result. In other words, decrying a “poor legal decision” is in many instances another way of saying you simply do not agree with that particular decision. 

This is not to say that judges are infallible, or that no judicial decision can be deemed objectively wrong. But this leads to the second problem with the proposal: the notion that the only effective form of accountability is one that involves the democratic removal of constitutional officers from their posts.

Read the whole thing!

Nebraska courts prepare for the worst: a bioterror attack

Like many organizations, arms of government often develop plans to continue operations in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. The Nebraska state judicial system recently undertook a special version of that planning, preparing for the event of a pandemic or bioterror event. This interview with the state judge who chaired the task force to plan for a pandemic offers some fascinating insight into how (and why) the courts are getting ready.

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.

Want a lighter sentence? Wait for your birthday

That’s the bottom line of this fascinating study by Daniel Chen and Arnaud Philippe. The authors looked at more than four million sentencing decisions in France, and another 600,000 in the U.S. federal courts. They found that French sentences are 3% shorter, and U.S. federal sentences are 33% shorter in the day component, when the defendant is celebrating a birthday. (Month components were unaffected.) The authors also found that in the U.S. courts, significant birthday leniency exists only where the defendant and the judge share the same race.

I am always cautious about making too much of one study, but there certainly seems to be some basis for the authors’ conclusion that “social norms transmitted through rituals can perversely lead to unfair or incorrect decisions in important situations even when professional norms have been designed to mute them.”

Judicial elections in the #MeToo era

I am pleased to announce that my article, Judicial Recall and Retention in the #MeToo Era, has been published in the latest issue of Court Review. It is part of a symposium issue on the recall election of Judge Aaron Persky in California last June.

The article identifies strong similarities between the efforts to recall Judge Persky and later efforts to prevent the retention of Judge Michael Corey in Alaska and Justice Carol Corrigan in California. As I explain in the article, the parallels are troubling because recall elections and retention elections historically developed at different times and for different reasons. The utilization of recall tactics in retention elections is therefore a worrisome development.

Court Review is the official journal of the American Judges Association. I recommend the entire issue for anyone interested in the Persky saga and lessons that may be drawn from it.