The eleven justices of Mexico’s supreme court have elected Norma Lucia Piña as their new chief justice. Chief Justice Piña will be the first woman to lead the court in its history.
The 6-5 vote carried a fair bit of intrigue. Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, had backed Justice Yasmín Esquivel for the position, and apparently had pressured the other judges to support her candidacy. But Justice Esquivel was also battling under allegations that she had plaigiarized her senior thesis while an undergraduate in the 1980s. Lopez Obrador subsequently demounced the result of the election, arguing that “the judicial branch has been kidnapped … has been eclipsed by money, by economic power.”
Piña stressed the importance of judicial independence in her first remarks as chief justice. It sounds like there will be some turbulent times ahead.
This is an interesting primer on the administrative and public-facing roles that are expected of chief justices in Australia. As in the United States and other common law countries, the chief justice not only has ordinary adjudicative responsibilities, but also a wide range of administrative duties and an obligation to speak publicly in support of (and sometimes defense of) the court system.
None of this is particularly new or earth-shattering, but it is an excellent reminder of the organizational nature of a court system, and the organizational responsibilities that fall upon court leaders above and beyond their ordinary roles.
Here is a very interesting example of the federal judiciary’s interdependence with the rest of the federal government. The responsibility for maintaining and operating the 420 federal courthouses across the country is shared by the judiciary, the U.S. Marshals Service, the General Services Administration, and the Federal Protective Service. And construction or maintenance of courthouses but also be authorized and funded by Congress, with oversight assistance from the General Accounting Office (GAO).
The upshot of this entanglement is that significant changes or improvements to federal courthouses must work their way through multiple layers of bureaucracy before anything gets done.
And so it is here. In 2008, after one significant wave of courthouse construction had been completed, the federal judiciary implemented an Asset Management Process (AMP) to prioritize courthouses most desperately in need of upgrades or new construction. Five years later, the GAO signed off on the process. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) then began the laborious task of assessing the condition of every federal courthouse in the country. By 2020, it had completed assessments of 385 courthouses, or 92 percent, with respect to security, space standards, functionality, the condition of judges’ workspaces, and the general condition of courtrooms and facilities. The judiciary assured the GAO that its assessments were accurate as of the time they were completed.
But the GAO was not satisfied. Asked to review the AO’s courthouse assessments, it concluded that several had become outdated and were therefore over- or under-prioritized for improvements. (For example, two courthouses were destroyed by recent hurricanes, yet their condition was not updated by the AO.) Yesterday the GAO issued a 62-page report outlining its concerns, as well as specific steps that the AO must take to improve the assessment process.
Some might look at the GAO as a necessary watchdog to make sure that the government does not spend money in the wrong places. Others might see this as wasteful bureaucracy run amok. The point here is simply that the business of operating courts is inextricably, and often invisibly to the public, tied to the demands, whims, and queries of many other actors. And that is interdependence in a nutshell.
Republican officials in Montana, who declared open season on their own judicial system earlier this year, fired a new salvo at the courts late last week. State Attorney General Austin Knudsen requested that the entire state supreme court recuse itself in a case involving a legislative subpoena of internal court documents.
In March, Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law a bill that would eliminate the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission, and allow the governor to fill judicial vacancies directly. Several weeks ago, the Republican legislature issued a subpoena to the state court administrator, seeking internal emails and other court documents (Including an internal poll) in which state trial judges allegedly expressed opinions on the constitutionality of that legislation. The court administrator asked the state supreme court to quash the subpoena, and Chief Justice Mike McGrath recused himself from that determination because he had lobbied the governor not to sign the bill. The remaining six members of the state supreme court quashed those subpoena in mid-April, pending a further hearing.
The AG now asserts that all members of the supreme court are directly conflicted from participating in any future hearing on the issue, because they would be ruling on access to their own internal documents. The justices’ continued participation in the case constitutes, in the AG’s words, “not merely the appearance of impropriety. This is actual impropriety.”
At first glance, state Republicans have laid a trap for the judiciary worthy of a cartoon villain. If the remaining justices recuse in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the Republicans will challenge any replacement judges on same grounds until they find judges that they feel will rule in their favor. On the other hand, if the justices decline to recuse themselves, they will face continued allegations of bias and impropriety, and will come under heavy political pressure to allow the subpoena to go forward.
Never mind that the allegations of impropriety appear to have absolutely no merit. None of the six justices on the court have spoken in any official public capacity about the subpoenas or the pending legislation. But that is beside the point: the real purpose of the recusal motion is to turn public opinion against the courts by painting the judiciary as hopelessly biased.
There is a way out of this trap, but it will require several careful steps.
Continue reading “Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court”
James Duff, the longtime Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, will retire from that position on January 31. Duff served two stints as Director, from 2006-2011 and again from 2015 to the present. During his tenure, he has brought many significant improvements to the federal courts system’s internal operations and external relationships, including overseeing the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct and helping the courts quickly adjust to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Not every initiative on Duff’s watch has been a success — the effort to bar judges from associating with the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society was ill-advised from the start — but overall Duff has helmed the AO with a steady hand and extraordinary competence and vision.
Chief Justice Roberts has appointed U.S. District Judge Roslynn Mauskopf as the new AO Director. She will be the first woman to lead the AO in its 81-year history. We wish her the best in the new position.
It’s Rebecca Womeldorf, a longtime veteran of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Almost three years ago, four justices of India’s highest court held a press conference to publicly air concerns about the administration of justice in that country. The press conference made international news, but it appears that it has not catalyzed significant change. At least, that it the view of this op-ed:
It appeared to have been alleged that in certain important matters the allocation of cases was done in a manner that could lead to desired outcomes.
If true, this was a profoundly serious charge.
There has been no change in this and the allocation is still being done by the Chief Justice at his own sweet will with no rational or transparent method.
There is still no transparency in the selection of judges.
The press conference by the judges was a historic first in the history of the judiciary anywhere in the world. It yielded no result and got reduced to a mere publicity event.
I wonder if this will get new traction in the coming year.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Colorado and the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts respectively sent letters to their registered attorneys, informing them of recent measures taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Massachusetts will be extending its courthouse closures for most matters, including all jury and bench trials, while tolling statutes of limitations through the end of May. Colorado has delegated considerable administrative decisionmaking authority to the chief judge of each judicial district, in acknowledgement of the different circumstances and available resources in each district.
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”
Judge Claire Eagan (N.D. Okla.) is the new Chair, replacing Judge Merrick Garland. Judge Lavenski Smith (8th Circuit) also joins the Committee as a new member.
More on the Executive Committee here.