Suspect in shooting of Indiana judges pleads self-defense

We have followed the bizarre story of three Indiana state judges who were involved in a violent scuffle outside an Indianapolis White Castle last spring. Two of the judges were shot, and all three were suspended from the bench for their part in the altercation. (All three judges have since been reinstated.)

Now one of the shooters is approaching trial in March. He will apparently argue that he was acting in self-defense.

(Via WDRB.com, with some video featuring still photos of the altercation.)

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.

More facts emerge in judicial scuffle outside Indianapolis White Castle

Last May, two Indiana state judges were shot in a violent skirmish outside a Indianapolis-area White Castle restaurant. The judges were in town for a state judicial conference, and somehow found themselves on the wrong end of a loaded gun in the early morning hours just outside the restaurant. One judge, Bradley Jacobs, has since returned to work; the other, Andrew Adams, was indicted in the incident and is facing potential judicial discipline. (He is still recovering from his injuries.)

Now more facts have come out about that fateful night. Apparently four judges in all–Adams, Jacobs, Crawford Circuit Judge Sabrina Bell, and Clark County Magistrate William Dawkins–had been involved in a night of heavy drinking, and had made it to the White Castle only after first trying to go to a gentleman’s club and learning it was closed. Dawkins went into the restaurant, and then the scene in the parking lot turned ugly. From the Indianapolis Star:

Adams, Jacobs and Bell were standing outside the restaurant when Alfredo Vazquez and Brandon Kaiser drove past the trio in a blue SUV. Either Kaiser or Vazquez yelled something out the window that prompted Bell, court documents said, to give the middle finger to the men.

Vazquez, according to the charges, then parked his SUV. After he and Kaiser exited the vehicle, a verbal altercation ensued, court documents said. It then turned violent when Adams and Jacobs moved toward Vazquez and Kaiser, the panel said.

Adams and Vazquez both hit and kicked each other, according to court documents, while Jacobs and Kaiser mostly wrestled on the ground. “At one point, Judge Jacobs was on top of Kaiser and had him contained on the ground,” the charging documents said.

Vazquez then tried to get Jacobs off of Kaiser, the panel said. As Jacobs began to get up, Vazquez started fighting him, court documents said.

After Kaiser began to sit up, Adams kicked him in the back, the panel said. Kaiser then pulled out a gun and shot Adams in the stomach, according to court documents. The panel says Kaiser then “went over to Judge Jacobs and Vazquez and fired two more shots at Judge Jacobs in the chest.” Kaiser and Vazquez then allegedly fled the scene.

When medics arrived to treat Adams and Jacobs, Adams told them he drank “a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon” that night, the panel said, adding that Adams’ blood alcohol level was .213.

Arkansas prosecutor under fire for collecting signatures for judicial run while trying a murder case

Arkansas prosecutor Stephanie Potter Barrett, who is seeking a seat on the state’s Court of Appeals, has come under criticism after it was revealed that her aunt was collecting signatures to get Barrett on the ballot inside the courthouse. More distressingly, at least one of the signatures favoring Barrett’s candidacy was from a juror seated in a murder trial which Barrett was prosecuting.

Barrett insists that she did nothing wrong; she did not collect the signatures herself, and she argues that the courthouse is a public space at which collection of signatures is permitted. But others are not so sure: several ethics experts pointed out that judges cannot use the courthouse to engage in political activity, and suggest that a judicial candidate should be equally restricted. The defendant in the murder trial is also seeking a mistrial based on the juror signature.

It is entirely possible that Barrett really believes that she has done nothing wrong. And it is also entirely possible that the juror who signed the petition knows nothing about Barrett, or even associated her petition with the individual prosecuting the case. (Some people will sign anything.) But the optics are terrible. The courthouse appears politicized, and the fairness of the murder conviction is in doubt.

Reasonable people may differ over the propriety of choosing judges through a direct election. But elections open the door to these kinds of stories, and these kinds of stories erode public confidence in the judiciary and the administration of justice itself.

Massachusetts judge rejects plea deal in ICE evasion case

Shelley Joseph, the Massachusetts state judge who has been charged with helping an illegal immigrant evade an ICE official in her courthouse, has rejected a plea deal from federal prosecutors. Joseph was suspended from the bench after her arrest.

Joseph’s alleged actions have caused enormous controversy in the Bay State, raising difficult questions of federal-state relations, access and safety in state courthouses, and a wealth of moral and ethical considerations.

MassLive has a full report for those following this story closely.

Why did France just outlaw legal analytics?

Palais de Justice AngersThere has been quite a bit of shock this week over new French legislation that bans anyone from publicly revealing the pattern of judges’ behavior in court decisions. Article 33 of the Justice Reform Act would impose a prison sentence of up to five years for anyone who uses the identity of judges or magistrates “with the purpose or effect of evaluating, analyzing, comparing or predicting their actual or alleged professional practices.”

The law seems targeted to a growing number of legal analytics firms in France and elsewhere, which use technology to look for patterns in judicial decisions in order to predict future outcomes. But the law is written broadly, and could also apply to lawyers, legal academics, good government groups, and others who study the courts and judicial decisionmaking.

The new law is wildly disproportionate and draconian — five years in prison for simply analyzing publicly available documents? But the motivation behind it is more understandable than you might think. More after the jump.
Continue reading “Why did France just outlaw legal analytics?”