Cybersecurity breach affected federal courts

The SolarWinds cybersecurity breach that affected several federal agencies and private tech companies last month apparently also infiltrated the federal court system, according to reports. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts yesterday announced additional safeguards to protect sensitive court records. According to the AO’s press release,

Under the new procedures announced today, highly sensitive court documents (HSDs) filed with federal courts will be accepted for filing in paper form or via a secure electronic device, such as a thumb drive, and stored in a secure stand-alone computer system. These sealed HSDs will not be uploaded to CM/ECF. This new practice will not change current policies regarding public access to court records, since sealed records are confidential and currently are not available to the public.

Shades of the cyberattack that hit the Texas courts earlier this year. That involved ransomware, but it equally exposed the courts’ vulnerabilities involving modern technology

James Duff to leave AO

James Duff, the longtime Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, will retire from that position on January 31. Duff served two stints as Director, from 2006-2011 and again from 2015 to the present. During his tenure, he has brought many significant improvements to the federal courts system’s internal operations and external relationships, including overseeing the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct and helping the courts quickly adjust to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Not every initiative on Duff’s watch has been a success — the effort to bar judges from associating with the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society was ill-advised from the start — but overall Duff has helmed the AO with a steady hand and extraordinary competence and vision.

Chief Justice Roberts has appointed U.S. District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf as the new AO Director. She will be the first woman to lead the AO in its 81-year history. We wish her the best in the new position.

Making sense of the new PACER bill

There is plenty of room for constructive compromise, but it requires everyone to acknowledge that “free” PACER is not actually free.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, H.R. 8235, by a voice vote. The bill would radically reform access to federal court records by requiring (among other things) that the courts’ PACER system be modernized and its contents made free to the public. The bill drew praise from open courts advocates, and furious pushback from the Judicial Conference and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). Indeed, the Judicial Conference’s reaction was probably the most vigorous response I have seen from the courts in many years.

It is a rare piece of legislation these days that can simultaneously garner bipartisan support and solicit institutional panic from the judicial branch. So it’s worth examining closely. What we find is an opportunity for the court system to improve its transparency and its own performance, albeit not on the schedule or in the manner it would prefer. Continue reading “Making sense of the new PACER bill”

Federal Circuit affirms PACER fee decision

After a two-and-a-half year wait, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the decision of Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in National Veterans Legal Services et al. v. United States. The plaintiffs in that case argued that the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts exceeded their statutory authorization by using PACER fees to fund internal court projects that were unrelated to the administration of the PACER system itself. (PACER is part of the federal courts’ electronic filing system, which allows the public to access most documents that are filed for a 10 cent/page fee.) The government argued that funding the additional projects did not exceed the court’s authority.

In March 2018, on cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Huvelle split the difference, concluding as a matter of statutory interpretation that the courts had properly used PACER fees to fund certain projects–including the development of the electronci filing system itself–but had overstepped its bounds in using funds to provide electronic notice to jurors, assist with state court records in Mississippi, and other tangential projects. (I previosuly explored Judge Huvelle’s opinion, and the policies underlying the larger question of PACER fees, here.)

The Federal Circuit concluded that Judge Huvelle’s opinion “got it just right.” But it also added its own gloss on the relationship between the courts and the other branches of government, as seen through the lens of PACER revenue. Continue reading “Federal Circuit affirms PACER fee decision”

Federal courts ask Congress for coronavirus assistance

The federal judiciary has asked Congress for $36.6 million in supplemental funding to work through the coronavirus pandemic. The money would be used for cleaning courthouses, enhanced medical screening, information technology updates, and other IT infrastructure, among other things. The judiciary is also seeking new legislation to toll certain bankruptcy deadlines, add new temporary judgeships, and protect litigants and detainees from unnecessary coronavirus exposure.

The letter setting out the requests is here.

The federal courts try to self-censor. A federal judge says no.

Hoping not to be bullied is not a worthy strategy for a co-equal branch of government.

A little over two years ago, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) issued a new policy which barred its employees and staff from engaging in partisan political activity, including posting yard signs or making ordinary campaign donations. I predicted at the time that the First Amendment implications would likely turn the new policy into a headache for the AO.

And so it did. In May of 2018, two AO employees filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the policy violated their First Amendment right to engage in core political speech. Last week, the court agreed, granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs and promising to enter a permanent injunction preventing the AO from applying its policies to most of its employees. The court’s opinion is eye-opening, both for the district judge’s robust defense of First Amendment rights and for the AO’s cowardly view of the judiciary’s place in American society.

Continue reading “The federal courts try to self-censor. A federal judge says no.”

Federal courts deliver guidelines for reopening

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has issued guidance regarding the opening of federal courthouses across the country. The guidelines envision a four-phase process, moving from the current scenario (most courthouses closed, hearings by phone or video, most employees working from home) through limited reopening with social distancing, and eventually a return to normal operations.

This is just a framework, not a schedule. The courts will not proceed along any opening path until data from the Center for Disease Control and other public health officials suggest that it is prudent to do so.

Federal courts develop coronavirus plan

As they have in other times of public emergency, the United States Courts have devised a plan to address operations in the event of a more widespread coronavirus outbreak. Many of the precautions are sensible and consistent with approaches taken by other public and private sector organizations:

[Administrator James] Duff suggested that federal courts “at a minimum” coordinate with human resources about “social distancing practices,” such as “teleworking, staying home when sick, and separation of potentially ill staff from others within the workplace.”

The memo also urged courts to emphasize good respiratory etiquette and hand-washing practices and ensure routine, regular cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace.

Courts should also be “implementing continuity procedures, issuance of applicable orders, and other measures as necessary to ensure the continuation of necessary court functions,” Duff’s memo states.

What is the right level of court system transparency?

Court transparency is essential, but it cannot be one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s why.

Several recent articles in the popular press and academic literature have grappled with the issue of transparency. Professor Scott Dodson has written about the “open-courts norm” in the United States which, “accentuated by the First Amendment,” guarantees that criminal (and in most cases, civil) proceedings are open to the public. And, channeling Homer Simpson, Professor David Pozen has described government transparency “as the cause of, and solution to, a remarkable range of problems.” Outside the academic world, organizations such as Fix the Court are issuing their own transparency report cards to draw attention to the refusal of some courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) to broadcast oral arguments.

These commentators are on to something important. As public organizations, courts are expected to be broadly transparent about their activities. But not all forms of court transparency are the same. Some types of transparency are necessary to the courts’ survival, while other types of transparency would actually undermine the courts’ operations. It is worth considering why.

Continue reading “What is the right level of court system transparency?”