A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.
It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.
Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”
This week saw the formal announcement of two new efforts to modernize state court systems through technological improvements. The Pew Charitable Trusts announced an initiative, in partnership with the National Center for State Courts, American Bar Association, state court administrators, and private tech companies, to “modernize key aspects of the nation’s civil legal system and make it more accessible to the public.” Among the projects are developing more online tools for litigants and the public; using artificial intelligence to understand common language legal questions; and expanding online dispute resolution.
Separately, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) released a new report entitled Eighteen Ways Courts Should Use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers. Among the report’s recommendations are:
- Ensure court information and services are accessible through smartphones and ensure up-to-date wayfinding.
- Allow court users to present photos, videos, and other information from their smartphones in court.
- Enable court users to appear by telephone or video conference.
- Facilitate easier scheduling of hearings using common digital calendar platforms.
- Allow online payment of fees and other costs.
- Create opportunities for users to access forms and other case-related information remotely and simplify the completion and filing of those forms, including electronic filing, and eliminate notarization requirements.
- Deliver automated court messaging about upcoming hearings or missed events and allow that messaging to help guide users through the process.
Substantively, both projects are directly responsive to an increasing number of self-represented litigants who desperately need help navigating the legal process. In the spirit of this blog, the projects also demonstrate how the courts can partner with organizations in their immediate environment to improve their outreach and service.
The latest ABA essay on judicial independence comes from Justice Ming Chin of the California Supreme Court.
The latest essay in the ABA’s series on judicial independence comes from Edward (Ned) Madeira, the former chair of the Commission on Separation of Powers and Judicial Independence and the Commission on the 21st Century Judiciary.
Just in time for Law Day, American Bar Association President Hilarie Bass offers up a strong defense of judicial independence, and a sharp account of the ABA’s historical efforts to protect that independence. Well worth the read.
The latest essay in the ABA series on judicial independence comes from Pennsylvania attorney Michael Reed, who discusses efforts to remove or isolate judges for political reasons. His short essay ranges from the Court-packing scheme of the 1930s to the current attempt to impeach justices in Pennsylvania.
The latest in the American Bar Association series on judicial independence looks at responding to attacks on judges — whether through television ads, social media posts, or otherwise. ABA President-elect Robert Carlson’s piece is here.
The American Bar Association has commenced an essay series on judicial independence, soliciting different perspectives from a variety of prominent legal thinkers. The first contribution, from former ABA President James Silkenat, is here.
Two of President Trump’s nominees for federal district judgeships have been withdrawn. Brett Talley, a nominee for the bench in Alabama, and Jeff Mateer, nominated for the bench in Texas, will not advance.
Talley drew particular criticism over the last several months for his personal conflicts and clear lack of qualifications. The 36-year-old Justice Department attorney has only practiced law for three years and has never tried a case — a monumental shortcoming for a trial court nominee. Talley also failed to disclose that he was married to a White House lawyer, or that he had previously made controversial statements about death row inmates. (Of less direct importance, but no less head-scratching, was the additional revelation that Talley is a “ghost hunter.”) The ABA rated him “unqualified.”
Separately, Mateer came under fire for his statements on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgender children.
The withdrawals come on the heels of Senator Chuck Grassley’s recommendation that the White House “reconsider” both nominations.
Among the names advanced were Steven Grasz, a nominee for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and who received a unanimous “unqualified” rating from the American Bar Association in October. Two Fifth Circuit nominees, Don Willett and James Ho, each received “well qualified” ratings from the ABA, but only passed the Committee on the same 11-9 party-line vote as Grasz. Most of the other nominees were far less controversial, sailing throughout the committee by unanimous voice vote.
An interesting side note: disgraced Senator Al Franken, who has stated that he will resign in coming weeks, continues to sit on the Committee and cast his votes by proxy.