The slow-moving federal court challenge to Alabama’s method of electing its appellate judges reached another milestone on Wednesday, when the parties gave their final arguments in a case filed back in 2016.
The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP is arguing that the Alabama’s method of at-large voting for state appellate courts impermissibly dilutes the votes of African-American voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. As evidence, the plaintiffs point to the fact that no black candidate has ever been elected to the state’s civil or criminal appellate courts, and only two have been elected to the state supreme court. The state has countered that standard party politics, not race, provides the best explanation for the election outcomes.
A federal judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and held a bench trial last November. After a lengthy delay brought on by the state’s appeal to the Eleventh Circuit on the denial of the motion to dismiss, the trial court held oral arguments to conclude the bench trial this week.
There is no indication when the judge will issue his decision. But whatever his final ruling, this case is a nice example of how life tenure shields him from some of the inevitable political fallout that will result from any decision he makes. If only his counterparts on the state bench enjoyed that same freedom from political pressure. But as both sides in the case made clear on Wednesday, viewing judges as politicians seems to be par for the course in Alabama.
Professor Marin Levy has posted a new article, Visiting Judges, on SSRN. It’s a very useful piece which describes the origins of the visiting judges program in the federal courts, and provides some insider perspective on the use of visitors on the federal courts of appeal (drawn from 35 interviews with appellate judges and staff).
One persistent theme in the judicial interviews is that visiting district judges benefit from learning about the appellate process and appellate culture. That makes good sense: a trial judge who better understands and appreciates how appellate panels think is more likely to structure a written opinion with appellate reviewers in mind. And many of the circuit courts in the study had formal programs that invited new district judges within the circuit to sit by designation in their first few years on the bench.
The appellate judges recognized that they, too, would benefit from sitting by designation more frequently on the district courts. Their circuits, however, had no meaningful tradition of doing so, and indeed, many of the appellate judges worried about their own competence on the trial bench.
But the benefits of trial experience for appellate judges are just as strong, if not stronger, than the benefits of appellate experience for trial judges. Appellate panels are routinely called upon to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion, or whether its assessments of witness credibility withstand scrutiny. Having to sit as a trial judge–to rule on evidentiary objections, instruct jurors, pore through records on summary judgment, sentence a defendant, or make quick decisions on motions for preliminary injunctions–would give appellate judges an essential perspective on the litigation trenches. (It’s worth noting that many judges interviewed stated that they had already served as trial judges or at least trial attorneys. But of course, that it not the case for all appellate judges, many of whom come from academia, state appellate courts, or some other non-trial practice.)
One might even imagine a formalized shadowing or training system, in which district and appellate judges take the time to show each other the ropes of their respective benches. Of course, such a program would require administrative planning and quite likely Congressional support and approval, but it would allow the benefits of experience to inure to both levels of the federal judiciary.
The West Virginia legislature has been busy introducing new bills that would affect the state courts. One bill would add magistrate judges to the court system and give all state magistrates a salary increase. Another bill would require that the state supreme court hear all appeals as of right.
Neither of these ideas is new — the magistrate bill was introduced without success in previous years, and the state supreme court already hears all appeals by court rule. But the bills are still significant. The magistrate bill acknowledges the continued resource needs of the court system in a state with a growing population. And the appeals bill, while merely codifying an existing practice, represents a carefully considered tradeoff between imposing burdens on the supreme court and the cost of creating an intermediate appellate court. At minimum, these bills are a sign that the legislature is thinking meaningfully about the needs of the court system after years of chaos within the judicial branch.
Two lawsuits involving judicial elections–one each in Alabama and Arkansas–were the subject of new developments this past week.
In Alabama, the NAACP and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state’s method of electing state appellate judges discriminates against African-American voters. The lawsuit claims that the absence of black judges on any state appellate court is the result of discriminatory vote dilution tactics. The state moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins denied the motion to dismiss, and set the case for a bench trial. Attorneys for the state have now taken their case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to overturn Judge Watkins’s refusal to dismiss the case.
The Arkansas case involved a controversial attack ad against incumbent state judge Courtney Goodson, who was seeking reelection. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, had been running the ad on several stations in northwest Arkansas when a county judge barred its further broadcast in May. The corporate owner of a Little Rock television station appealed the injunction. But last week, the state court of appeals ruled that the issue was now moot, since Justice Goodson has won reelection, and the ad was no longer airing. The issue may be moot for now, but the larger issues–prior restraint of political speech, the influence of “dark money” in elections, and the wisdom of electing judges in any event–remain.
The Pennsylvania Senate yesterday passed a significant redistricting bill that would redraw the maps both for the state legislature and the state’s representatives in Congress. Before the vote was taken, however, Senator Ryan Aument introduced an amendment that would also change the way Pennsylvanians vote for their appellate judges. The amendment calls for judges of the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court to be elected regionally rather than by statewide elections. The amendment passed, and did not seem to effect the passage of the final bill.
Sen. Aument later explained that his amendment would provide all areas of the state with representation on the appellate courts. Proponents also surmise that regional elections would increase voter turnout.
The White House recently announced that President Trump had nominated Judge A. Marvin Quattlebaum to a seat on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Quattlebaum currently sits as a federal district judge in South Carolina–a position he has held for only two months.
There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to promote* Judge Quattlebaum to the appellate bench. But choosing a sitting district judge will once again create a vacancy in South Carolina, and that vacancy may take much longer to fill. Politics may well dictate filling appellate benches, especially in election years. But the trial courts, the place where the public most closely and commonly interacts with the judicial system, risk becoming the forgotten child. They deserve to filled as rapidly, and with as much care, as do appellate court vacancies.
* Many on the federal district bench would quibble with this term: the trial judges are the real judges! I use it here only in the sense that the Fourth Circuit is higher in the federal hierarchy.
Judge Harry Edwards (D.C. Circuit) has an interesting interview with the National Law Journal on the continuing sense of collegiality among federal appellate judges–even when they disagree strongly on case outcomes. This is not a new position for Edwards, who has championed the collegial perspective for many years. But on this Thanksgiving Day, when Americans take time to appreciate our common heritage and common blessings, it is a nice reminder that many on the bench try not to let their personal ideologies dictate their professional relationships.