More internal strife within India’s court system — UPDATED WITH DOCUMENTATION

Two stories coming out of India caught my eye this past week. The first was an op-ed discussing the ongoing debate about the use of MBA-qualified court managers to gain better control over the administration of the court system. Given the shocking backlog and delay in many of India’s courts, appointing special managers to help streamline the case management process makes good sense. But as is the case with most organizations, the introduction of “outsiders” to clean up an internal mess poses a threat to those already working within the system. Fixing this will require a cultural shift within the Indian court system, probably from the top down. But it will not be easy.

In an unrelated story, but one reflecting some of the same difficulties, an attorney was held in contempt of court and jailed for one month for making disparaging remarks about the court on Facebook. The court referred to the “judge bashing” as a form of browbeating, terrorizing, or intimidating judges.

I cannot find the exact social media post that instigated the contempt charge, so I cannot tell whether the lawyer’s actions were an anomaly or something more pervasive. But the whole story suggests an unhealthy relationship between court and counsel. Attacking the courts on Facebook is childish and unprofessional. But jailing a lawyer for a social media post is (at least seemingly) thin-skinned and cowardly. Unless the post called for violence against judges or the court system, a contempt proceeding would seem to do more harm to the courts than a Facebook post ever would.

UPDATE: The entire contempt order can be found here. It does appear that the lawyer’s Facebook comments were pretty obnoxious (although I am not culturally suave enough to decode them entirely). But the court’s 45-page defense of judicial independence and the “majesty of the law” also seems very over the top. Quoting Othello is a particularly odd, cloying touch. A shorter, sterner statement could have addressed the court’s concerns without making the judges appear so professionally and emotionally fragile.

 

Georgia judge faces contested election after prominent local attorney promises “blood sport”

Georgia Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt, Jr., a twenty-year veteran of the bench, will be opposed for reelection for the first time after a local attorney threatened “blood sport” against him.

In late 2016, prominent local attorney Bobby Lee Cook wrote to Judge Van Pelt: “I want you to finish your two years remaining on your term and to qualify for re-election — if you have the stamina and resolve! There is nothing so interesting as a Northwest Georgia election where politics for generations has been a ‘blood sport.'” Cook was apparently infuriated by Judge Van Pelt’s position that Cook’s daughter–herself a local judge–was not qualified to serve as the circuit’s chief judge.

Cook, a lawyer since 1949, considers himself to be a local power broker.  He has represented many prominent Georgia families and was portrayed in the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Cook credits himself with placing Van Pelt on the bench in 1996.

Last week, attorney Melissa Hise announced that she would challenge Judge Van Pelt in May’s election. Cook says he supports Hise’s candidacy but has nothing to do with it.

Van Pelt is more suspicious.  “As a general rule,” he said, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

 

Tennessee to implement changes to help indigent representation

A task force appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court has recommended significant changes to the state’s program to provide attorneys for those who cannot afford them, and the court itself has resolved to act on those recommendations.

The Chattanoogan reports:

One key change is an increase in the amount attorneys are paid to work on such cases, a compensation rate that has not changed in 20 years. The Court will seek funding to increase the rates to $65 per hour, from the current $40 per hour for work outside court and $50 hourly for time spent in court. Additionally, current rules “cap” compensation on most cases at $1,000 or $1,500. The Court will request an appropriation in next year’s budget to raise the caps by $500 on all felonies and by $250 on juvenile matters.

Additionally, the Court is endorsing the recommendations to establish an appellate division of the public defenders’ offices to handle all appeals involving those offices, as well as to establish a conflicts division to facilitate representation of more indigent defendants by public defenders in lieu of private attorneys being appointed to the cases.

The entire Task Force report can be found here.

ABA initiates program to give junior lawyers more courtroom experience

For years, trials have been in decline in American courts: only 1-2% of all cases filed will eventually make it to a jury or bench trial.  This decline has also meant fewer opportunities for young lawyers to sharpen their courtroom skills.

The ABA Section of Litigation has initiated a new program to give those young lawyers more courtroom experience, and the ABA’s Judicial Division has signed on.  These changes cannot, by themselves, reverse all the trends that have moved litigation away from trial outcomes.  But given the continued importance of trials in the American legal system, they are still welcome developments.

Lawyers in India sue to address an unsafe working environment — the courthouse

The Mazgaon Court Bar Association is filing a writ with the High Court to address the unsafe conditions in a Mumbai courthouse after an 18 kg slab fell from the ceiling in one of the busiest courtrooms in Monday.  The building was a chemical factory before its 2003 conversion into a courthouse.

The photo of the damage is truly worth a thousand words.