Iowa considers closing courthouses

Facing a budget crunch, both court administrators and state legislators in Iowa are admitting the possibility that they might close or consolidate courthouses in the future, leaving some of Iowa’s counties without any courthouse at all.  Technological advances might make some closings more palatable, as materials can be filed and hearings conducted electronically.

There is no plan in the works to consolidate court services, said State Court Administrator David Boyd, who is set to retire in September after four decades of working for Iowa’s court system. And there are state laws barring certain moves, such as creating regional litigation centers or moving clerk offices out of county seats.

But Boyd admits there may come a time when offering court services in all 99 counties could be reconsidered.

“I really do hope at some point we are in fact considered to be a separate and equal branch of government and properly funded,” he said. “That’s not to say that we have to continue to do things in a particular way just because we’ve always done it that way.”

 

 

Should you correct a judge’s mispronunciation?

Professor James Duane has a very short and interesting article up on SSRN about the potential perils of correcting a judge’s mispronunciation during oral argument. He focuses on one recent case where an excellent young lawyer twice corrected a Supreme Court Justice’s mangled pronunciation of “antecedent” simply by later pronouncing it correctly. Duane thinks this was the wrong approach, and counsels lawyers to either mispronounce the word in the same way going forward, or avoid using the mispronounced word altogether for the remainder of the argument.

That seems like odd advice to me. Judges are human beings, and they are not immune from basic mistakes any more than the rest of us.* Were I in the situation of that young advocate, I would be inclined just to use the word correctly the next time. Mimicking the error would seem to call even greater attention to it.

What do readers think?  Feel free to weigh in.

* Some judges are more comfortable admitting mild linguistic ignorance (Chief Justice Roberts’ interruption a few years back to ask about the meaning of “orthogonal” comes to mind).  But accepting that you mispronounced a word, and that it’s no big deal, seems to me a basic example of judicial humility.

Update on state legislation affecting the courts

State legislatures continue to propose and advance bills that will impact their respective court systems.  Here are some of the latest developments:

  • Indiana’s proposal to convert Marion County (Indianapolis) to a merit selection system is heading to conference committee.  The latest version of the bill calls for a 14-member nominating committee to choose three final candidates for the governor’s selection; four of the committee members would be chosen from voters.  Previous coverage of the Indiana bill and its history is here.
  • In Arkansas, a new bill would change the way state judges are elected in Cumberland County Superior Court.  The current election system grants seats on the bench to the top two vote-getters among all candidates.  The bill would require candidates to declare which of the two judicial seats they are seeking.
  • The Florida House of Representatives has passed an amendment to the state constitution that would impose term limits on state appellate judges, including supreme court justices.  This is a terrible idea, but happily it is still in its infancy.  The state senate would also have to approve the move, and then voters would have to approve it in 2018.  Similar efforts in others states have been defeated in recent years after they were exposed for the transparent political proposals that they were.
  • Nebraska’s unicameral legislature has advanced a bill to raise judicial pay in the state.

 

A refreshingly honest take on courtroom cameras

Judge Dale Harris has an op-ed discussing his first experience with cameras in his courtroom, stemming from Minnesota’s pilot project to allow recording of certain sentencing proceedings.  It’s a usefully honest take:

There is not much of a question in my mind that the cameras had some effect on the participants. I could tell I was measuring my words more carefully than usual, and I am pretty sure the attorneys were as well. Although most court proceedings are open to the public, human beings just tend to act differently when they know they are on camera. It is also hard to pull out a couple short clips that accurately depict a complex hearing. Those are the primary reasons I was not a fan of the pilot program.

For those of us who work in the courthouse every day, however, it is probably too easy to take familiarity of the judicial process for granted. Many people never see the inside of a courtroom, so having this type of access through the media might provide some insight that those people would not otherwise get. The media is merely responding to that perceived need.

As a government entity, the court system always has to strive for greater transparency. The question in the near future, as the pilot project is evaluated, is whether these benefits amount to a net gain. If the answer is “yes,” then I fully would expect the pilot program to be expanded to more types of court hearings. Stay tuned.

Cameras probably do have some effect on participants, just as a live audience would.  But if the end result is a sentencing characterized by more measured words and a careful tone, the cameras pilot should indeed be considered a success.

U.S. Courts unveils updated FJC website

The Federal Judicial Center, the research arm of the federal courts, has updated its website.  It’s terrific — clean, easy to search, and filled with important and interesting studies commissioned by the Judicial Conference and its various committees over the years.  A must for researchers or any individuals interested in the workings of the federal courts.

Minnesota courts continue innovations regarding self-represented litigants

State courts have increasingly tried to keep up with the growth of self-represented litigants. Concrete numbers are elusive, in part due to varying definitions of “self-represented.”* But studies undertaken by individual states clearly demonstrate the burgeoning self-represented population in probate, domestic violence, family law, and even run-of-the-mill civil cases. Federal courts, too, report that almost 86,000 civil cases were filed by a self-represented plaintiff in Fiscal Year 2016 (most of them prisoner petitions).

This interesting article discusses the efforts of the Minnesota state courts to address the growing numbers of self-represented parties:

It’s not uncommon for pro se litigants to arrive at court with paperwork that’s either the wrong form or filled out incorrectly. These kinds of mistakes can gum up the system, court officials say. Now judges can sometimes send people straight from the courtroom to a self-help center.

“It helps people feel like they’ve been heard,” District Judge Bethany Fountain Lindberg said. “It also eliminates unnecessary hearings.”

While the number of court cases overall in Minnesota has decreased since 2010, the percentage of litigants proceeding without a lawyer remains high. Excluding traffic and parking cases, nearly 80 percent of cases heard in Minnesota district courts last year involved a pro se litigant at some point, state data show.

The reason is often financial, court officials say. The rise of the do-it-yourself web culture may also be behind the trend.

“It used to be that everyone had attorneys,” said Mike Moriarity, 10th Judicial District administrator. “Now there’s a spirit that people want to try doing it themselves.

* The Court Statistics Project, maintained by the National Center for State Courts, tracks self-represented litigation through a common definition, but the numbers are not available for all states.

Stern on Judicial Candidates’ Right to Lie

Nat Stern (Florida State) has posted his new article, Judicial Candidates’ Right to Lie, on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

A large majority of state judges are chosen through some form of popular election. In Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, the Supreme Court struck down a law forbidding certain judicial campaign speech. A decade later, the Court in United States v. Alvarez ruled that factually false statements do not constitute categorically unprotected expression under the First Amendment. Together these two holdings, along with the Court’s wider protection of political expression and disapproval of content-based restrictions, cast serious doubt on states’ ability to ban false and misleading speech by judicial candidates. Commonly known as the misrepresent clause, this prohibition has intuitive appeal in light of judges’ responsibilities and still exists in many states. Given the provision’s vulnerability to challenge, however, states may be able to avert chronic fabrication by judicial candidates only by removing its ultimate source — judicial elections themselves.