Alaska Chief Justice recuses himself in gubernatorial recall case

Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, has recused himself from a case involving the legality of a campaign to recall the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy. Bolger made the decision in light of his previous statements criticizing the governor for failing to follow established procedures in appointing a district judge. Bolger also told audiences that Alaskans should resist “political influence” over the judiciary and should fight for judicial independence.

The Court invited interested parties to file motions seeking Bolger’s recusal, with a February 26 deadline. No motions were received, but Bolger determined on his own that recusal was appropriate. In a two-page Recusal Notice, he stated:

As stated previously, I do not have any personal bias or prejudice concerning the parties or attorneys involved in this case.  However, I have special public responsibilities as the administrative head of the Alaska Court System and as the chairman ex-officio of the Alaska Judicial Council.  In those capacities, I have made public statements that could suggest a strong disagreement with the governor’s conduct on some very fundamental issues affecting the judicial branch, conduct that forms part of the basis for the recall petition under consideration.  In other words, this is a case where a reasonable person might question whether my judgment is affected by my overriding public responsibilities to the justice system.

Earlier thoughts on Bolger’s comments, and the propriety of judges speaking out, here.

The Court will consider the legality of the recall on March 25, with retired Justice Robert Eastaugh filling in for Bolger. It is widely expected that the Court will uphold the validity of the recall effort.

When should judges speak out?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor drew attention last week when she filed a dissent in a case staying the issuance of a preliminary injunction against the federal government. The injunction had been issued by a federal district judge in Chicago, and barred the Trump Administration from implementing a “public charge” policy that would require immigrants seeking green cards to demonstrate that they would not need government assistance. Beyond disagreeing with the majority’s decision to overturn the injunction, Justice Sotomayor expressed dismay with her colleagues’ readiness to entertain “extraordinary” appeals from the Trump Administration, rather than letting those appeals first work their way through the intermediate appellate courts. She wrote:

[T]his Court is partly to blame for the breakdown in the appellate process. That is because the Court—in this case, the New York cases, and many others—has been all too quick to grant the Government’s “reflexiv[e]” requests. But make no mistake: Such a shift in the Court’s own behavior comes at a cost. Stay applications force the Court to consider important statutory and constitutional questions that have not been ventilated fully in the lower courts, on abbreviated timetables and without oral argument. They upend the normal appellate process, putting a thumb on the scale in favor of the party that won a stay. (Here, the Government touts that in granting a stay in the New York cases, this Court “necessarily concluded that if the court of appeals were to uphold the preliminary injunctio[n], the Court likely would grant a petition for a writ of certiorari” and that “there was a fair prospect the Court would rule in favor of the government.”) They demand extensive time and resources when the Court’s intervention may well be unnecessary—particularly when, as here, a court of appeals is poised to decide the issue for itself.

Perhaps most troublingly, the Court’s recent behavior on stay applications has benefited one litigant over all others. This Court often permits executions—where the risk of irreparable harm is the loss of life—to proceed, justifying many of those decisions on purported failures “to raise any potentially meritorious claims in a timely manner.” Yet the Court’s concerns over quick decisions wither when prodded by the Government in far less compelling circumstances—where the Government itself chose to wait to seek relief, and where its claimed harm is continuation of a 20-year status quo in one State. I fear that this disparity in treatment erodes the fair and balanced decisionmaking process that this Court must strive to protect.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dissent drew vindictive attention from President Trump, who took time away from his visit to India to chastise Sotomayor and suggest that both she and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who publicly criticized Trump in July 2016) recuse themselves from all future cases involving Trump or the Trump Administration. “I just don’t know how they cannot recuse themselves with anything having to do with Trump or Trump-related,” the President said.

The U.S. Supreme Court was not alone in facing scrutiny for the perceived political statements of judges. In Alaska, Chief Justice Joel Bolger has been drawn into a controversy surrounding an effort to recall the state’s governor, Mike Dunleavy. Proponents of the recall allege (among other things) that the governor showed lack of fitness for the office by refusing to appoint a trial judge within the 45-day period prescribed by statute, and by “improperly using the line-item veto to … attack the judiciary and the rule of law.” The legality of the recall was challenged in court, and the state supreme court will hear the case on March 25. But some are calling for Bolger to recuse himself from the recall decision, given that Bolger commented on the governor’s behavior at the time of the trial judge appointment controversy. (Bolger also criticized the line-term veto in a separate speech.) Bolger has declined to remove himself from the case of his own volition, but the supreme court did take the unusual step of issuing a letter inviting motions to disqualify if others felt it was warranted.

It is certainly true that judges must take care in their public pronouncements, especially as they relate to politics, public policy, or other government officials. Diving recklessly into partisan political debate is a time-honored recipe for eroding the legitimacy of the judicial branch. But it is also true that the judiciary is an independent branch of government, and should have a voice on issues that affect it as an institution. Where do we draw a sensible line?

Continue reading “When should judges speak out?”

Florida judge faces recusal for Facebook friendship

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko’s Facebook account is the subject of a pending dispute in Florida’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal. Judge Butchko is friends on the social media site with local lawyer Israel Reyes, which appellants argue should disqualify her from hearing any cases involving Reyes or his firm.

Florida was an early leader in setting out ethics guidelines for judges on social media, with a 2009 opinion that barred judges from adding lawyers who may appear before them as “friends” on any social networking site. Had Judge Butchko recently added Mr. Reyes as a friend, it would seem a clear violation of the ethics guideline.

But there is a twist in this case: Mr. Reyes was formerly a colleague on the state bench with Judge Butchko, and it was in that capacity that they connected on Facebook. Only when Mr. Reyes left the bench did the potential for him to appear before Judge Butchko ever become a possibility. And the ethics opinion is silent about removing friends from social media–as opposed to adding new ones.

Mr. Reyes is representing a non-party in the case before Judge Butchko, but the proper defendant in the case finds the entire disqualification motion absurd:

“No reasonably prudent Miami lawyer has a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial simply because two judges who sat on the bench in Miami-Dade County are ‘friends’ on Facebook,” wrote Shutts & Bowen attorneys Patrick Brugger and Frank Zacherl of Miami, who did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Judge Butchko could presumably resolve the issue quickly by dropping Mr. Reyes as a Facebook friend, so as to avoid any perception of partiality. Nothing would prevent her from maintaining a real friendship within professional limits. And that might be the best kind of friendship after all.

 

Canadian judges cleared of conflict-of-interest charges

Three federal judges in Canada have been cleared of wrongdoing after they attended sponsored social events at an international tax conference in Spain.  The Canadian Judicial Council concluded that concerns that the judges’ attendance compromised their impartiality were “unfounded.”

The judges themselves were more sanguine about the signal their attendance might have sent.  Judge R.S. Bocock, for example, recused himself from a pending case involving one of the sponsors, even though he was unaware of the conflict at the time he attended the sponsored event.  Bocock stated,

“I have reflected on this entire matter….The potential for a conflict of interest in this matter seems remote; however, through inadvertence, the portrayal of a potential conflict, where all the facts are at first unknown, is possible,” said Bocock, in a letter sent to the complainant.

“As such, there are consequences, costs, and reputational risks to the judge, the judiciary and the administration of justice as a whole. Prudence and best practice would suggest that, in future, refraining from attending such off site sponsored conference receptions is a better and wiser choice. I certainly intend to follow this prudent conduct in the future.”

Judges often have to straddle a line on social occasions so as to not appear to favoring a particular party or law firm.  The appearance of impartiality is so important that most judges choose to avoid more social events than they rightfully should.  But there is no easy solution.  Justice Abe Fortas reportedly said that “Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, or near as may be, an island entire.”  The phrasing is a bit stiff, but there is plainly some truth to the observation.

A curious string of recusals in a New Mexico corruption case

One by one, eight state trial judges have recused themselves from presiding over a criminal case against a former New Mexico state senator.  Phil Griego was indicted in June on 22 counts, including perjury and embezzlement.  Among other things, Griego is alleged to have spent funds from his re-election account after resigning from the state senate in March 2015.

None of the eight judges identified a specific reason for recusing themselves from the case, with each indicating only “good cause” for the recusal.   The Santa Fe New Mexican reports:

Former state Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna said one factor in the decision by so many Santa Fe judges to recuse themselves from Griego’s case might have been their role lobbying legislators for court funding.

If the need to obtain court funds from the legislature compromises judges to this extent,  interdependence can become a danger to the administration of justice.

 

 

Legality of Oklahoma Supreme Court Appointment Goes Before … Oklahoma Supreme Court

When Justice Steven Taylor recently retired from the Oklahoma Supreme Court, Governor Mary Fallin tapped 35-year-old Patrick Wyrick to fill his seat.  Seats on the court are geographically distributed, and Wyrick was among three finalists from the state’s Second Judicial District whose names were submitted to the Governor for final consideration.  The final nominees were chosen by the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission (JNC).

But now Justice Wyrick’s appointment is being challenged by the Oklahoma Chapter of the ACLU, on the grounds that he does not actually reside in the Second Judicial District.  In preliminary arguments last week, Wyrick’s lawyer dismissed the challenge, asserting that the JNC’s selection of the three finalists is effectively unreviewable.  The ACLU countered that no state entity, including the JNC, has all-powerful status.

The decision is now before the state supreme court itself, leaving the eight remaining justices to decide the fate of a potential colleague.  The ACLU has further requested that any sitting justice who recommended Wyrick for a judicial position be recused from considering the case.

Certainly a fascinating example of court interdependence that bears watching.

 

 

 

Could the Ninth Circuit rule on its own split?

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has introduced a bill (one of four currently in Congress) to split the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals into two circuit courts.  Apparently in response to reports that Ninth Circuit judges opposed the bill, Senator Flake asked the Ninth Circuit Executive for clarification on the court’s ability to rule fairly if the legislation were adopted and subsequently challenged. This week,  Cathy Catterson, the Circuit Executive of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, responded with an unqualified yes.

Given that bills to split the Ninth Circuit have been introduced many times since 1941, and have never gained serious traction, it is hard to see this as anything more than political posturing.  But the regular recurrence of the proposal again illustrates the deep interdependence of the federal courts.  Indeed, circuit reorganization is literally an existential issue, affecting active judgeships, resources, case assignments, precedent, and internal court dynamics.  The judges naturally have an interest in the outcome, but they lack any direct say in it.

So let’s play out the hypothetical.  Could the Ninth Circuit judges rule on the reorganization of their own court?  And what would that look like? Continue reading “Could the Ninth Circuit rule on its own split?”