The costs of judicial interdependence, Part I

First in an occasional series on how organizational interdependence affects the judiciary

Two recent stories illustrate how the structural interdependence of courts within a constitutional system can drive judicial choices and behaviors.

We start in Sandusky, Ohio, where Common Pleas Judge John Dewey appointed his personal court administrator as a deputy court clerk, a position that would allow the administrator to handle all filings in a sensitive case involving allegations of sexual assault. Judge Dewey further decreed that the case filings should remain sealed, meaning that the newly appointed deputy court clerk would be the sole gatekeeper of the records.

The decision angered the local media, which asserted a First Amendment right of access to the filings. This was not an ordinary case of sexual assault: the defendant was the local district attorney, and the public had an interest in the proceedings. To complicate matters further, under Ohio law court records are supposed to be handled by an elected official. Judge Dewey’s administrator was not elected, and Judge Dewey apparently did not inform the elected court clerk about his preferred arrangement. This decision caused enormous confusion in the clerk’s office, both as to why he did not tell the elected clerk what he was doing, and as to whether Dewey’s decision to appoint a deputy court clerk was even legal.

It is also unclear why Judge Dewey had been given the case, given that the defendant was a regular–indeed, institutional–participant in the Sandusky County court system. Typically, when a local attorney or judge is involved as a party in litigation, the case is assigned to a judge unaffiliated with that jurisdiction to prevent a judicial conflict of interest. Somehow, though, Dewey held on to the case for months even though it created a visible conflict with other cases on his docket that had been brought by the prosecutor’s office.

Judge Dewey finally recused himself in late September, noting that “Sandusky County Judges have a conflict in this matter as it may involve a Sandusky County elected official.” A retired judge was appointed to take over the case, and in early December the defendant took a plea deal that will keep him out of jail but require him to resign from his elected position.

So what was going on here? It’s hard to know whether Judge Dewey’s series of odd choices–not recusing himself from the outset, holding on to the case for months, and quietly appointing his administrator to have sole control over the court papers–was driven by ignorance or some sort of malfeasance. But whatever Dewey’s motivation, the situation was made possible by the tight institutional connection between elected officials within the local Ohio court system. Prosecutors, court clerks, and judges are all elected on partisan platforms. Prosecutors often seek judicial office. And the internal community is likely very tight-knit. In many localities the judge, court staff, and criminal attorneys spend so much time together on the job that they come to think of themselves as a team of sorts–what Professor Herbert Jacob called a “courtroom work group” — even though each participant has very different roles and responsibilities. (If you are familiar with the chumminess of the characters on the old “Night Court” series, you get the idea.)

The most benign view of Judge Dewey’s actions, then, is that he sought to protect the court system and its established courtroom work groups from external interference by a curious media. He assigned a trusted assistant to manage and seal records so that a sensitive matter could be handled without undue political pressure. And he overlooked a legal requirement to share that information with the elected clerk. If so, Dewey made a series of mistakes, but in service to the larger institutional scheme. This suggests that there is, perhaps, too much interdependence between the local institutions, such that it is impossible to truly separate them even when doing so would be in the interest of justice.

Of course, it may well be that the benign view is not the correct one, and that Dewey was protecting a prosecutor friend by knowingly, and improperly, taking over his case, and then hiding the details from the media. That certainly seems to be the view of the local paper, which has called for a deeper investigation. But even in this scenario, the situation was exacerbated by the interrelationship of the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and the voting public.

The only clear corrective to this type of problem is vigilance. Those inside the court system need to recognize when their interdependencies can erode the judiciary’s legitimacy or moral authority, and take proactive steps to address them. Those outside the system need to use their powers–formal or informal–to identify potential abuses and call for change. That process is playing out now in Ohio, hopefully with positive results for the future.

Federal court filings increased by seven percent last year

That’s one immediate and important takeaway from the Annual Report of the Director of the U.S. Courts, published today. I shall have more to say about this once I have digested it — but business appears to be booming.

Kenyan courts vow to resolve 5000 long-delayed cases by the end of September

Facing a backlog of more than 60,000 cases that have been pending between five and ten years, Kenya’s judiciary has pledged to resolve more than 5,000 of them by September 28. The selected docket includes civil, criminal, and commercial cases.

It is not clear to me from the story why these 5,000 cases were chosen, or how practical it is to resolve them all so quickly and still do justice to the parties. Perhaps these cases are ripe for decision or administrative closure, and it is primarily a clerical task to clear them. But if they require resolution on the merits, this sort of frantic clearing of the docket is likely to backfire on the court system–especially since the story suggests that the judges won’t even be back from their six-week vacation until mid-September.

I welcome any thoughts in the comments from those more knowledgeable about the current conditions within the Kenyan court system.

Nevada, low on federal judges, faces growing caseload

One persistent theme on this blog is that courts are entirely dependent on other entities for their judicial staffing, and must scramble when those entities are not responsive to those staffing needs. This article offers yet another data point, discussing the ongoing federal judicial vacancies in Nevada, and the concomitant growth of the federal caseload in that jurisdiction.

Texas judges warn of judicial emergency after surge of case filings

Judges in Collin County, Texas are requesting additional resources–in the form of more courts and/or judges–after a surge of case filings in recent years. The eleven district judges in the county received more than 2100 new cases each in the past year, and that number is expected to increase.

As the Dallas Morning News summarizes:

Based on the current caseload, judges who want to keep up can spend no more than 53 minutes on each case and must dispose of nine cases a day.

But that’s not realistic. A hearing just for temporary orders in a divorce case takes about an hour, the judges said. Spending three days on a trial means having to find the equivalent of 26 other cases that require no time.

Two North Carolina programs aim to ease court congestion

Two very different programs with the same goal of keeping people out of court were announced in North Carolina this week.

Durham County has one of the state’s highest levels of eviction filings, with approximately 900 cases filed each month.  Eviction cases are stressful for tenants and costly for landlords. A new program co-sponsored by Legal Aid of North Carolina, Duke University’s Civil Justice Clinic, and the Durham County Department of Social Services is aiming to reduce eviction filings by guiding affected tenants to legal and financial assistance programs.  The hope is that tenants will be able to remain in their homes, landlords will be paid the rent owed, and the courts will not be clogged with cases that might well be amenable to extrajudicial resolution.

In Buncombe County, local prosecutors have developed their own program to reduce the need for drivers to come to court to challenge or pay speeding tickets.  Drivers caught going 15 miles or less over the speed limit would have the option of paying their fine or even negotiating for reduced points online.  The district attorney behind the program estimated that 2000 people per day crowd the courthouse to appear before a magistrate for speeding fines.

 

Minnesota adds two judgeships to keep up with case filings

Just yesterday I noted the impact of increased case filings on state courts in Washington.  The State of Minnesota has also recently experienced significant increases in filings, especially in major criminal cases and child protection cases.  In response, the Minnesota legislature has authorized two new judgeships to help alleviate the burden.

The courts helped themselves in this instance by keeping careful statistics on caseload growth, which added meaningful support to their request for new judges.