A fabulous look inside a “traveling court”

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific piece on the day-to-day workings of New York City’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, a court that deals with nearly 1 million cases a year but remains virtually unknown. The court is charged mostly with adjudicating minor criminal offenses and regulatory violations, like errant recyclables and excessive noise. But the job is important: many people who do not address a summons promptly can later find themselves in civil court with much larger fines.

The court has taken an aggressively friendly approach to encourage the accused to show up and contest their case, advertising its existence at swimming pools and community events, and even offering tote bags. And it’s worth it to show up — almost 50% of those who do win their cases.

“We have one goal,” said Deputy Commissioner John Castelli. “To ensure people get due process.”

I absolutely love this. A taste of due process at this level ensures justice and vastly increases public appreciation for the courts and the legal system.

(Access to the story may require subscription.)

 

Two state supreme courts converge in Texarkana

State courts do an admirable job of bringing their work into the community, and one of the more common approaches is to hold oral arguments in high schools. Setting up an argument in a school auditorium is manageable logistically, and allows students to see how the courts operate close-up.

So I particularly liked this story about the supreme courts of Arkansas and Texas traveling to Texarkana at the same time to hold hearings. The Arkansas justices held their proceedings at Arkansas High School, and the Texas justices at Texas High School, before coming together for a question-and-answer session at the city’s convention center. It shows the courts to be both thoughtful and savvy in their community outreach.

On exasperated judges

This short opinion by United States District Judge Vanessa Gilmore, bemoaning the parties’ “whiny letters” and chastising counsel to “Please stop trying to become my least favorite lawyers” has been making the rounds over the past couple of weeks. It is noteworthy because judges do not normally write like this, either in style or substance. They may think it–judges are human, after all–but to put it in an opinion for the world to see adds a dramatic, and intentional, touch.

This is not the first judicial opinion to call out the attorneys for conduct or argument that the judge finds annoying. Used judiciously (no pun intended), an occasional sprinkling of exasperation in an opinion can be very effective. It humanizes the judge–who among us hasn’t experienced the frustration of someone wasting our time?–and it underscores the judge’s role as guardian of the court system and the legal process. As the most visible members of the court system, judges must often police the system’s other users and remind them of professional and community standards. A carefully considered dose of exasperation can do the trick.

Here is an example of what I mean: In this 2017 opinion rejecting a proffered plea deal between the federal government and a corporate criminal defendant, U.S. District Judge William Young began:

Let’s see if I’ve got this straight.

Period. End of paragraph. Not the standard way to begin an opinion, to be sure. But that line (and a few others similar in tone) perfectly captured the court’s incredulity at the parties’ proposal. It also captured the court’s belief that allowing the specific form of corporate plea deal proposed by the parties would be detrimental to the public. Despite the occasional bits of snark, the opinion plainly speaks not just for its author but for the community that the law is intended to protect.

But it is also easy to go too far. As a law student, I read with amazement the colorful beatdowns of seemingly incompetent and evasive lawyers by U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent. No infraction or argument was too small to avoid Judge Kent’s notice. He berated counsel for drafting pleadings as if written in crayon, and mocked others for seeking to transfer the case out of Texas. His opinions were sarcastic and funny, but they were also cruel, and unnecessarily so. Rather than raising the bar for legal practitioners, they ridiculed the legal profession itself. (Judge Kent’s final coup de grace was his impeachment and imprisonment in 2009 for sexually abusing two female employees.)

Expressions of judicial exasperation can be uplifting, humanizing, or debasing. At their best, they identify the judge as a human being possessing better-than-average wisdom and professionalism, if not infinite patience. At their worst, they reveal the judge to be all too human and unable to conceal contempt.

It is difficult to always be the adult in the room, especially in this age where many of our most prominent citizens are prone to public tantrums. But always being the adult is the essence of the judicial role. Judge Gilmore’s order may elicit a certain amount of personal sympathy among her readers, but it does little to advance respect for the judiciary as a whole.

A discouraging survey on lack of confidence in the Kenyan courts

A new study reveals that nearly half of Kenyans seek to resolve their legal disputes outside of court, either through informal means or by not pursuing a claim at all. The reasons are discouraging but unsurprising:

The top reason given for inaction was the belief that acting would not help, a view that was held by a third of the respondents.

The second most frequent rationale was that the other party was more powerful (20 per cent) than the complainant. Three in 10 Kenyans from the lowest income group say they did nothing because the other party was more powerful compared to one in 10 people in the highest income group. The numbers imply that the justice system is not seen as an equalising force by a sizable part of the population and that the experiences of those who sought legal services differed depending on income levels.

The study also found that 2 out of 3 Kenyans believe their court system generally protects the interests of the rich and powerful above all others, and only 1 in 3 felt that they can rely on the courts for fair justice.

Access to justice was hindered in other ways as well. Nearly 1 in 5 Kenyans said that they have no idea how to even initiate a legal claim. And those can file a claim may have to wait an eternity for resolution, since 1 in every 6 cases currently pending in the Kenyan courts is more than ten years old.

These problems are not unique to Kenya, of course. Every court system faces the considerable challenge of providing equal justice in a society that is inherently unequal. But the survey nevertheless brings those challenges into stark relief once more.

A good primer on how drug courts work

Howstuffworks.com has a detailed and very interesting article on the history of drug courts and the work they do today, with a particular focus on the courts in Buffalo, New York. It’s a good read for those interested in how the court system has adapted to contemporary challenges.

Positive changes in the Michigan state courts

The Michigan courts recently announced two initiatives designed to improve the experience of being in court for their users. The Third Circuit Court in Detroit opened new lactation rooms in four different buildings to improve access for nursing mothers. And in Dearborn, a local judge has opened a veterans court to provide help to veterans with mental health or substance abuse problems who would otherwise face jail time.

Dear fellow citizen: please don’t use bomb threats to get out of a court date

This is one of those stories that makes you wince:

Courthouse officials are using a weekend arrest in a bomb threat case to warn others not to make the same mistake.

Spartanburg County [South Carolina] Clerk of Court Hope Blackley said people sometimes will attempt to get out of their court hearings by calling in bomb threats to the courthouse, forcing the building to evacuate and shut down operations.

Such actions add to the burden on an already strained judicial system and can inconvenience hundreds of other people who have rearranged their schedules to accommodate a court appearance.

“It’s a costly, logistical nightmare first and foremost, and taxpayer dollars are being wasted,” Blackley said. “The court docket is already backed up. We need every minute we can to have court be operable. It’s a huge injustice for folks who want and need their cases to be heard.”

The courthouse can be a difficult place for many people, and it is understandable why some would feel reluctant to enter that space  After all, issues affecting personal liberty, property, and relationships are determined there on a daily basis. But that is no excuse for terrifying and disrupting the lives of hundreds of other people. My goodness.