Late last year, the Cook County (Ill.) Board ordered the termination of nearly 180 county court employees, in light of rampant financial problems throughout the county. That action spurred Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans to file a lawsuit against the Board to enjoin the layoffs. Chief Judge Evans argued that even though the Board had power to set the courts’ budget, it did not have the authority to target individual employees for layoffs.
The Lake County Circuit Court agreed in December, issuing a temporary restraining order against the county to prevent the layoffs. Now, nearly eight months later, the parties have reached a settlement.
Both sides are claiming victory. The Board is saying that the settlement amount is “much lower than what was initially demanded” and that it will promote efficiencies in the court system. Chief Judge Evans points to the loss of only 22 jobs (as opposed the the initial 180), and his belief that “the lawsuit made clear that the county board had no authority to lay off court employees.”
When I began this blog in February 2017, I hoped that its growth would coincide with a renewed interest in the organizational nature of court systems, as well as a renewed appreciation for the history of court administration and management. Whether by coincidence or design, that wish has come true in at least one respect: a batch of new scholarship on Chief Justice William Howard Taft.
In addition to Jeffrey Rosen’s fine new biography of Taft and my own piece on Taft’s role in setting the stage for federal procedural rulemaking, this year has seen the publication of Kevin Burns’s lucid assessment of Taft’s chief justiceship in The Journal of Supreme Court History. Burns sets out the historical context of Taft’s time in the center chair, and beautifully illustrates Taft’s efforts to turn the federal court system into a truly centralized, autonomous branch of government. It’s a terrific introduction for those who are new to Taft’s legacy, and a useful reference for those already familiar with his career.
Burns adds his own take as well, arguing that many of Taft’s reforms were motivated by the explicit desire to increase court access for the poor. This was not merely a manifestation of the Progressive ethos of the 1920s: Burns argues that Taft understood access, in the form of faster and less expensive litigation, to help the courts as well as the litigants. More efficient case processing would lead to more confidence in the courts and less cynicism that the courts were simply the protectors of moneyed interests.
While I do not believe that access to courts was the sole–or even the primary–motivation for Taft’s reforms, the value of access was certainly consistent with his work, and Burns is right to bring it to light. Access also fits nicely with other values that motivated Taft’s administrative efforts, such as increasing the courts’ legitimacy, instilling respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, and securing greater internal control over the management of court resources. Burns’s piece is well worth the read.
The New York Times reports on a walkout by some New York City public defenders, who left their jobs while court was still in session yesterday in order to protest courthouse arrests by federal immigration authorities. It was the second such walkout this week. Having warned the PDs not to leave their posts while court was in session, court administrators quickly reassigned ten cases to private attorneys. From the story:
The public defense organizations saw it as punishment for political advocacy; court administrators saw it as a matter of keeping the courts running.
“We say, ‘By you doing what you did, you are disrupting operations,’” said Lucian Chalfen, the spokesman for the O.C.A. “We won’t have that. It helps no one.”
The Legal Aid society argues that the reassignments were retaliatory, but at first blush it seems that the court administrators were in the right. Their job is to keep the criminal justice system moving, and assure that indigent defendants are adequately represented. Whatever one thinks of the policies motivating the walkout, the primary harm of the walkout is to the clients who need representation right then and there. Nor was the walkout directly tied to the PDs’ ability to represent their clients in New York State court; there was no direct benefit to their clients.* That this was the second walkout this week, and the fifth this year, justifies the court’s firm response.
* I recognize the argument that many of the PDs’ clients are the very people most susceptible to ICE raids. So there is certainly some overlap between the policies motivating the walkout and the needs of defendants who need public defenders. But the relationship is still indirect, and ultimately too tangential to warrant direct and continued disruption of court operations.
The Illinois Supreme Court has given the Cook County courts a six-month extension to align their civil e-filing systems with the larger state system. The County sought a one-year extension from the original January 1, 2018 deadline. The Court allowed half that time, and instructed the Cook County Clerk to “commit all necessary resources to meet the extended deadline.”
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.
One of the challenges for litigators who practice across state boundaries is making sense of state court systems: not just the culture and norms of the area, but often the structure and administration of the courts themselves. Many states are downright byzantine, with a large number of specialized courts (sometimes with overlapping jurisdictions), and no unified (or only recently unified) court systems. Local courts, covering counties and municipalities, are often under the governance of their host city or county rather than a centralized judicial administrator.
This is a product of history as much as anything, but it leads to obvious inefficiencies. One example making the headlines this week comes from Clark County, Ohio, where the county council has voted against consolidating two clerk of court offices, in part because they use entirely different electronic records systems. The move was originally proposed as a way to save up to $400,000 a year for the cash-strapped city of Springfield, but the city was unable to fund a study to confirm that number. In the end, lawyers, judges, and others will have to continue navigating different court systems with different technological resources.
El Paso County, Texas will convert one of its existing civil courts into a family court in 2019, in order to combat a significant backlog of family cases. The county is currently operating with 1.5 fewer full time family court judges than the number recommended by the state court administrator. It receives about 16,000 family court filings each year.
This is an excellent example of an interdependent court system engaging in proactive planning to combat resource deficiencies. The county knows that it is likely to receive many more family court cases than civil cases in the coming years, and cannot reasonably expect to receive more help in the form of full-time judges. The change both promotes efficient and effective administration of justice, and signals to the resource providers in the state legislature the need for more judgeships.