Oral arguments in federal court continue to decline

The Legal Intelligencer reports that only 17.5% of federal appellate cases decided on their merits were disposed of after oral argument in 2015-16, the most recent statistical year available. Put another way, nearly five out of every six cases that are filed in the U.S. Courts of Appeal are decided without any sort of oral hearing. That is a significant drop: ten years ago, nearly 26% of cases received an oral hearing before disposition. Twenty years ago, the number was better than 40%.

The decline in hearings at the appellate level is, unfortunately, representative of a larger trend. A few years ago, Judge William Young (D. Mass.) and I examined the time that federal district judges spent on trials and courtroom hearings — a statistic we called “bench presence” — and found a year-over-year decline from FY2008 through FY2013. By 2013, federal district judges — our trial judges! — reported spending about only 2 hours a day on average in the courtroom.

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New head for Florida’s federal judicial nominating panel

In Florida, as in many other states, the state’s U.S. Senators have created a nominating panel to recommend potential nominees for the federal judicial openings.  As part of the larger vacancy crisis, Florida currently has seven openings at the federal district court level.  The state’s Lieutenant Governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, has been chosen as the new head of the nominating panel.

Let’s hope that the panel does good work, President Trump takes advantage of their pre-screening process, Senators Rubio and Nelson help shepherd the nominees through the Senate, and the people of Florida are able to enjoy a full-strength federal bench in short order.

Library of Congress features new exhibit on courtroom sketch artists

Smithsonian Magazine has a fun piece on a new exhibit at the Library of Congress featuring courtroom sketch artists and the dramatic moments they captured.  Check out the drawings of a frantic Charles Manson and a serene Timothy McVeigh — both are equally chilling.

Philadelphia Bar sets out evaluation criteria for judicial candidates

Many states conduct periodic performance evaluations of their judges, either for internal education and improvement, or to educate voters in advance of judicial retention elections, or both.  No state formally evaluates judicial candidates along the same criteria — a process I have called prospective performance evaluation — but the task is so important that local and state bar associations sometimes undertake it themselves.

The Philadelphia Bar Association recently unveiled their new evaluation process for judicial candidates, and it is impressively thorough — much more than this local news report suggests.  The standards set forth by the Philly Bar are carefully done and well worth a review by voters and court observers alike.

Chicago judge resigns over traffic court service

I reported last week on Richard Cooke, a newly elected Cook County judge who refused to take his initial assignment at traffic court — a way station at which almost every new Chicago judge cuts his or her teeth.  Judge Cooke has now resigned his judgeship.

Courts, like most organizations, place certain requirements on membership.  The court system itself may not be able to choose its members (who are elected by the public), but it can — and sensibly does — seek to train and socialize them into the basics of organizational life.  For whatever reason, Judge Cooke tried to circumvent at least part of that socialization process, to the detriment of both him and the court system.

Judicial aspirants brown nose at Brooklyn Democratic fundraiser

Those who are truly concerned about money and politics* might take notice of this past weekend’s fundraiser for Jacob Gold, “the dean of Democratic District Leaders,” in Brooklyn. The fundraiser brought out “a small army of attorneys,” all of whom hoped to wow the party bosses and win one of a handful endorsements for the bench in the coming election.

I have previously noted the rather nauseating control that party bosses maintain over the selection of New York’s trial judges. Events like this offer little solace for the prospect of an impartial and independent judiciary. New Yorkers deserve much better.

* As opposed to those who simply and mindlessly rant about Citizens United.