New Mexico advances legislation to criminalize threats against state judges

The New Mexico House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation that would impose criminal penalties on anyone who threatens a judge or the judge’s family members. The bill, which passed the House by a vote of 59-7, now heads to the state senate.

The proposed law would make it a misdemeanor to “doxx” any judge by sharing his or her personal information. Under the same law, it would be a fourth-degree felony to threaten a judge or the judge’s family with the intent of causing fear of great harm, disrupting the judge’s official duties, or retaliating for work done in court.

Some House members expressed concern that the bill criminalizes free speech. I am sympathetic to the concern that political speech be open, but the issue here is altogether different. Every ordered society limits the permissibility of threatening language. Here, threat to judges place a substantial risk of undermining the efficacy and legitimacy of the judicial system. Judges are prepared to have people upset with their decisions, but it is altogether different to ask them to serve when they are physically threatened.

We have seen too much of this behavior in recent years, including the recent threats to the young children of the judge in the Kyle Rittenhouse criminal trial. Criminalizing such malfeasance is long overdue.

Judges from around the world work to evacuate their female colleagues from Afghanistan

The safety of female judges in Afghanistan was precarious even before the botched American pullout left the Afghani people at the mercy of the Taliban and ISIS. Now the situation is far worse. Immeasurably, sickeningly worse.

One small point of light has been the efforts of private individuals and entities to protect Afghanis and, to the degree possible, get them and their families out of the country and on to safer ground. This Washington Post story highlights one such effort, by judges across the globe, to secure safe passage for their female Afghani colleagues. Their limited success in no way eradicates the catastrophe that is unfolding, but it does give one a certain degree of faith in the human spirit.

Afghan Supreme Court Justices assassinated in Kabul

Two Justices of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan were murdered by gunmen on Sunday while driving to work. The identity of the Justices has not been revealed, but reports suggest that both were women.

The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack, notwithstanding its pledge to continue “eliminating” government officials and other prominent figures. The Afghan government and the Taliban are currently engaged in peace talks (such as they are) in Doha, Qatar.

Judicial Conference to push for legislation and funding to assure safety of federal judges

In the wake of the horrific shooting of Judge Esther Salas’s son and husband at her New Jersey home last month, the Judicial Conference of the United States has resolved to seek aggressive legislation and funding to better protect federal judges and their families. The Judicial Conference’s press release, which lays out its proposals, is here.

Let’s hope that Congress acts quickly to provide the necessary resources.

Gunman opens fire at federal judge’s home, killing her son and wounding her husband

Several sources are reporting that a gunman came to the home of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas yesterday, and shot her son and husband when they answered the door. Her son, age 20, was killed and her husband was badly injured. Judge Salas was apparently in the basement at the time and was not hurt. The gunman, who was apparently dressed as a delivery driver, is still at large.

The motive for the shooting is unknown, although Judge Salas has presided over some high profile criminal cases since taking the federal bench in 2010. Unfortunately, attacks on judges and their families have happened before.

This is very sick, terrible news to start the week.

California approves plan to allow judges to comment on their own (and others’) decisions

The California Supreme Court has approved a change to its Code of Judicial Ethics, which would allow state judges to publicly comment on pending proceedings, including their own decisions and decisions of their colleagues. The most important change is to Canon 3B(9) and associated comments. The amended Canon now reads, in pertinent part:

In connection with a judicial election or recall campaign, this canon does not prohibit any judge from making a public comment about a pending proceeding, provided (a) the comment would not reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of the proceeding, and (b) the comment is about the procedural, factual, or legal basis of a decision about which a judge has been criticized during the election or recall campaign.

These changes have been in the works for some time, a reaction to the ugly 2018 campaign to recall state judge Aaron Persky. The sentiment is understandable, given that judges who produce unpopular decisions are sitting ducks in an election when they cannot even respond to unfair or oversimplified attacks by their antagonists. Permitting judges to at least clarify the context of their decisions, or to comment on the overall qualifications of a fellow judge whose career is being reduced to a single decision, may prevent voters from removing a judge rashly.

But there is still reason to be worried about whether this change will work for the better. Now that judges are permitted to comment on pending proceedings, they have less of an excuse to not comment when pressed by the media or an election opponent. Some judges might feel pressure to comment even when they do not want to do so. Others might choose not to comment and find themselves under pressure to justify that decision. Put differently, in some ways the original canon was cleaner because judges had no choice but to remain silent. Now they have more freedom, and that can be a blessing and a curse.

The new rules go into effect July 1. It will be a development worth watching.

 

Texas court system suffers ransomware attack

Last week, the Texas appeals courts and judicial agencies suffered a ransomware attack that disabled their IT network for several days. The situation was caught quickly and state court administrators created a temporary website. Officials have stressed that no personal information was stolen, and that the attack had no effect on the courts’ use of online hearings in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia’s state courts experienced a similar ransomware attack last July.

Although no harm seems to have come out of this latest incident, it does underscore the vulnerability of technological networks and the potential effect on the administration of justice.

Suspect in shooting of Indiana judges pleads self-defense

We have followed the bizarre story of three Indiana state judges who were involved in a violent scuffle outside an Indianapolis White Castle last spring. Two of the judges were shot, and all three were suspended from the bench for their part in the altercation. (All three judges have since been reinstated.)

Now one of the shooters is approaching trial in March. He will apparently argue that he was acting in self-defense.

(Via WDRB.com, with some video featuring still photos of the altercation.)

Warren’s attempt to question third branch legitimacy fails spectacularly

The American political scene is moving at lightning speed these days, with impeachment proceedings, the Iowa caucuses, the State of the Union, and the government’s response to the coronavirus threat all competing for our attention. But I would be remiss if I failed to note the outrageous question that Senator Elizabeth Warren posed during the impeachment trial last week.

All questions, of course, were required to be written on notecards and passed to Chief Justice Roberts, who read them aloud for response by either the House Managers or the President’s lawyers. Here is what Warren asked:

“At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government, does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution?”

Oh, good grief. Roberts has to preside over the trial — it’s right in the Constitution. Calling into question the legitimacy of the entire Supreme Court and the Constitution during a partisan political skirmish was both cheap politics and degrading to the very foundation of American democracy. And she was roundly scolded for the stunt, from observers on all sides of the political spectrum.

This blog has chastised the President and many others for their similar tendencies to attack the courts’ legitimacy when they cannot achieve their political objectives. Let’s add Elizabeth Warren to that list as well. If she truly wants to improve Americans’ faith in government, perhaps she could start by showing appropriate respect for its institutions and design.

Indiana judges involved in late-night White Castle shooting are suspended without pay

The strange saga of three Indiana judges involved in a shooting outside an Indianapolis White Castle last May has come to an end, at least for now. On Tuesday, the Indiana Supreme Court issued an opinion suspending Judges Andrew Adams, Bradley Jacobs, and Sabrina Bell without pay. The court concluded that Adams and Jacobs had engaged in judicial misconduct “by becoming involved in a physical altercation which Judge Adams was criminally charged and convicted,” and that all three judges engaged in judicial misconduct “by appearing in public in an intoxicated state and acting in an injudicious manner.” (Bell apparently gave an obscene gesture to the judges’ assailants, and Adams got involved in a physical fight in which Adams and Jacobs were seriously shot — more details here and here.)

The story has been worth following, and not only because state judges were shot point-blank in a fast food parking lot. The judges’ drunken and disorderly behavior has brought significant reputational harm to the rest of the state judiciary. After all, they were at a state judicial conference when this drunken encounter took place. This situation is far outside the normal range of damage control for most court public information officers.

And then there is the organizational harm in the form of increased workload for the judges’ coworkers. Jacobs and Bell received a 30-day suspension, and Adams 60 days (some of which has already been served). Someone has to pick up the slack with those judges out, and the courts cannot simply hire new staff to handle the dockets. As it is, the county courts in which the judges work are asking senior judges to take up most of the pending cases until the suspended judges return. A sensible use of resources, to be sure, but it still comes with internal costs.

For their part, the suspended judges appeared contrite. I am sure the entire experience for them has been harrowing, humbling, and literally painful.