State legislators are trying to politicize their judiciaries for short-term gain. Courts, their users, and the public must speak up to stop them.
The first weeks of the 2021 legislative session have seen an extraordinary number of proposals to overhaul the selection of judges or otherwise affect the composition of state judiciaries. Among them:
In Montana, Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the state’s judicial nominating commission, giving the governor direct appointment power over district court judges and state supreme court justices. The nominating commission, in place for nearly half a century, was expressly implemented to depoliticize the judicial appointment process. Despite an outpouring of criticism for the proposal, which is widely seen as a partisan gambit by new Governor Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators, the bill passed the legislature last week. If signed by the governor, the bill would make Montana a national outlier in its refusal to use an independent nominating commission.
In Alaska, a very similar bill would eliminate the role of the state’s nominating commission for the appointment of judges on the district courts and state court of appeals. Senate Bill 14 was introduced by Republican senator Mike Shower in late January. As in Montana, the bill has been panned as “a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska’s system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics.” Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, similarly criticized the bill as undermining a well-established and respected judicial selection process. Continue reading “State courts come under legislative assault”
In the last 15-20 years, court systems across the United States have slowly begun their own outreach in order to educate the public about their structure and their work. And there is good reason for the courts to take on this mission. The loss of robust civics education in many communities, combined with the flattening and sharpening effects of social media (which combine to eliminate much of the essential context and nuance from stories about the courts), means that court and judges are at increased risk of caricature.
One of the best programs originated in Colorado. Called “Our Courts Colorado,” it sends state judges to speak to schools and community groups about what exactly it is that the courts do. The program tries simultaneously to demystify the judicial system and to educate people about the important work of the courts.
The idea is spreading, slowly but surely, to other common law countries. New Zealand recently unveiled its own nine-minute video describing how the courts work. The video (also called “Our Courts”) is a little dry, but it has many subtle strengths. It shows judges in ordinary business dress, which humanizes them. It clearly explains the different levels within the court system, and the responsibilities of each court. And the video is available in three languages: English, Maori, and Mandarin.
Courts increasingly need to be their own advocates, and that includes assuring basic public familiarity with their work. This is a nice step forward in New Zealand.
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.
A new program, launched in the Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn, will provide books for minors to read while waiting for their court hearings. The first shelf of donated books is now available in Brooklyn’s Adolescent and Young Adult Diversion Court.
Previously, residents were “arbitrarily prohibited” from reading books in court, the nonprofit said. The Legal Aid Society worked to get the pilot program in place for over two years with the help of the Office of Court Administration, Judge Craig Walker — who presided over APY — and others, the organization said.
Books already provided by Penguin [Random] House for the program include “Decoded” by Jay-Z, “Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah, “Ghettoside” by Jill Leovy and several by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“What better way to help stimulate a mind in a positive way than to provide a book,” said Hon. Craig S. Walker, presiding judge of the Criminal Term Youth Part, Kings County Supreme Court. “It may seem like a small and meaningless gesture to some, but if we want these young people to aspire to do better, we need to provide them with the right tools in order for them to achieve their goals. That starts right there, in the Courtroom.”
This sounds like a great program, and kudos to those visionary enough to cut through the red tape to make it happen. One would think that eliminating the “arbitrar[y] prohibit[ion]” of reading books while waiting for a hearing would have been an easy call.
The first batch of donated books is understandably designed to appeal to the court’s users and stimulate their interest. But some of the cited authors have histories of anti-Semitic comments and other troubling behavior. And the program seems to be missing an opportunity to expose the same readers to great works of American civics and legal fiction. I hope that as the program expands, it will come to include more books like To Kill a Mockingbird and David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass, and relatively less Jay Z and Trevor Noah.