Two recently elected judges in upstate New York have been assigned to each other’s courthouses in an effort to minimize potential conflicts. Both judges were long-time legal aid attorneys and developed extensive relationships with lawyers and other actors in their respective courts. Recognizing that the likelihood of a conflict of interest — real or perceived — was too high, the state court administrator had the judges swap courts for a year.
This is a rather elegant solution, and seems to be in the best interests of all involved. The judges can get accustomed to the bench without the constant specter of conflicts, and soon enough will return to the jurisdictions that elected them. In the meantime, the public can have more confidence that the judges’ decisions are not based on old professional relationships, and the court system will have fewer conflicts to manage.
Several interesting and important developments have taken place in state courts this past week. Among them:
- The Chief Judge of the Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court announced that the court has a backlog of 3,000 cases that must be resolved by 2023. Nearly 90 percent of those cases are criminal matters. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to 89 percent of all court hearings being held remotely.
- New Hampshire has a new state court administrator. Dianne Martin was most recently the Chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and has worked in and with the state colurt system for nearly twenty years.
- And Idaho’s state court administrator has been named in a federal lawsuit filed by Courthouse News Service, alleging that the state’s practice of posting new case filings impermissibly delays public and media access to new case information. Courthouse News Service has filed similar lawsuits against other court administrators in the past, each time alleging that the court’s default position should be to provide immediate electronic access once a matter is filed.
Several states use judicial performance evaluation (JPE) programs to periodically evaluate state judges. In all states that use JPE, evaluation results are used to promote the development and professional growth of the evaluated judge, and to develop training programs for the judiciary more generally. In many states, JPE is also used to provide information to those charged with determining whether a judge should stay on the bench. In states where judges face retention elections, for example, JPE results are often communicated to voters in the weeks preceding the election. And in states in which the legislature or a commission decided whether the judge should be retained, JPE results are typically times to give valuable information to the decisionmaker about each judge’s strengths and weaknesses.
JPE has never been used to determine judicial salaries or benefits, and with good reason: an independent judiciary should not feel that remuneration is tied to specific outcomes. This has always seemed like such a given that I never found it necessary to mention when discussing JPE programs. But this article about a proposed salary hike for state judges in Arkansas, which felt the need to explain that “There isn’t a performance evaluation process for judges and prosecutors in Arkansas,” made me realize that perhaps the general public perception of JPE’s purpose is different. Continue reading “Should judicial compensation be tied to performance evaluation results?”
Uttarakhand, a state in northern India, is planning to introduce wifi-equipped “e-court” vans in five remote hill communities. The vans will have videoconferencing capability and will be administered by the district judges of the state.
The initial story provides few specifics about how the mobile courts will operate, what types of cases will be eligible, and exactly how the vans will be able to accommodate the presentation of evidence and the opportunity for transparent proceedings. What seems clear is that the effort is designed to chip away at a shocking large — and growing — backlog of cases in the state.
India has an unfortunate history of extensive case backlogs, and this creative effort to improve that circumstance should be applauded. I hope it is successful.
The Juris Lab has a nice, approachable statistical overview of federal civil case disposition over the past twenty years. It notes that the “average” case takes about 344 days from filing to termination, although that number varies widely depending on case type, jurisdiction, and nature of disposition. (Cases ending in a trial verdict take another year to resolve on average.)
The oveview does not attempt to account for all the variation in disposition time, and does not even mention obvious factors like judicial vacancies, complex procedural settings like MDLs, the influence of ADR on filings, CJRA-style reporting pressure, or settlement pressure. But it is still very useful.
I have only recently come across The Juris Lab, which aims to wed legal issues with big data. It seems like a promising site, and worth checking out on a regular basis.
I am delighted to have a new essay up on JOTWELL, reviewing Amnon Reichman, Yair Sagy, and Shlomi Balaban’s recent article, From a Panacea to a Panopticon: The Use and Misuse of Technology in the Regulation of Judges. It’s a terrific look at the Israeli’s courts’ development of case management technology, and the impact of that technology on its judges, all told through a subtle organizational lens. A snippet from the start of the review:
Court systems are large, complex, diverse, and resource-dependent organizations, a condition that shapes their character and behavior. It is surprising, then, how often court leaders fail to account for the organizational perspective in their decisionmaking. Amnon Reichman, Yair Sagy, and Shlomi Balaban illustrate this phenomenon, showing how the visionaries behind Legal-Net, Israel’s cloud-based judicial management system, were plagued by their failure to place its development in a broader organizational context.
Reichman and his colleagues trace the Israeli courts’ development of Legal-Net over two decades. Their research reveals a court system brimming with confidence that technology could be used to regulate judicial behavior, but insufficiently appreciative of the challenges of technological integration. The first version of Legal-Net was a flop: complicated and ambitious, it was a poor fit with existing court culture. A subsequent version better accounted for the court system’s unique character, but court leaders failed to anticipate how significantly its implementation would affect that character. In fact, the authors explain, the introduction of Legal-Net “heralded a tectonic shift in the judiciary’s work culture and work patterns,” as judges tailored their behavior toward the system’s incentives and away from their traditional roles. Today, it seems, the Israeli courts work for Legal-Net as much as Legal-Net works for them.
Please read the whole thing!
A number of recent news stories have emphasized the reluctance of many white-collar workers to go back to the office, even when their places of business are authorized to reopen. Extensive safety precautions, combined with the ability of many employees to work effectively from home, has even led some to proclaim the death of the modern office.
As admirable a job as courts have done with videoconferencing during the coronavirus pandemic, they do not have the same luxury of transitioning everyone to a long-term work-from-home arrangement. And so courts are reopening around the country. And they are finding difficult challenges in front of them. Safety and social distancing guidelines means that there is less space for observers and unsettled questions about enforcement of safety norms. Returning judges and attorneys are also facing heavily backlogged dockets and the further postponement of trials and hearings. It will require patience and creativity to get things back on an even keel.
A snippet from a fascinating Law360 article, which notes that a temporary ban on jury trials combined with a judicial vacancy rate over 10% does not bode well for access to justice in the Garden State:
“My fear is the backlog of trials … whenever jury trials start again, is going to require so much attention from the judges that it’s probably going to have an effect on how other matters proceed in terms of motions and things that normally would be getting done sooner rather than later,” said Keith McDonald of Norris McLaughlin PA.
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”
I have been writing recently about the vacancy crisis in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, which has only 11 active judges despite a statutory entitlement to 17 (and a Judicial Conference recommendation for 20). But docket challenges can occur even where a court has its full complement of judges. This story highlights the docket overload in the Middle District of Louisiana, which has all three of its authorized judges in place but which still struggles to manage its docket, one of the heaviest in the nation.
Happily, it appears that Senator John Kennedy is continuing to push for more resources for the district. But in our fractured age, when every judicial appointment has taken on a (misplaced) political tint, it’s nearly impossible to expect that Congress will adequately address the resource need.