New research on the internal dynamics of court rulemaking

Amending a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure is an act of intricate teamwork. Finally, some evidence of just how intricate.

Since 1934, the federal court system has been empowered to craft its own rules of procedure and evidence. That work is primarily done by five Advisory Committees, each composed of judges, attorneys, and law professors, who review the existing rules and periodically make recommendations to amend or update them.

FRCPNo rule proposal makes everyone happy, and academics in particular often critique the rule changes that the Committees take up (or fail to take up). But in recent years, that criticism has shifted from the substance of the Committees’ work to the composition of the Committees themselves. In particular, academic critics are increasingly content to assert, without any rigorous evidence, that the makeup of the Committees leaves them prone to engage in groupthink or other cognitive biases.

Are those allegations supported by a careful review of the Committees’ work? A rigorous, four-year case study says no. In fact, far from being entities mired in groupthink, the Committees are more akin to expert teams whose decisions are carefully researched and thoroughly considered.

Continue reading “New research on the internal dynamics of court rulemaking”

CBO puts $43 million price tag on federal courtroom cameras

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has issued its estimate of the cost for implementing S. 818, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2021. That bill would authorize federal judges to record and broadcast court proceedings as long as doing so would not violate the parties’ due process rights. The authorization would last for three years.

Recognizing that the vast majority of federal judges would likely decline the bill’s invitation to record proceedings, the CBO estimates that only 10% of courtrooms nationwide (about 200 courtrooms total) would be fitted with modern video equipment. Still, the CBO expects that it will cost about $75,000 to set up each courtroom, and another $50,000 annually to administer the program. In all, a rough estimate of $43 million would have to be expended between now and 2026, when the program would automatically sunset.

Forty-three million dollars is a staggering number to most people, especially since ordinary video recording technology is now relatively cheap and accessible. To be sure, there are security and privacy issues, but wow, that’s a lot of money for a program that doesn’t even have staying power.*

* Of course, the federal government once spent $100 million on unused plane tickets in a six-year stretch, so your perceptions may vary.

Two federal bankruptcy courts move to combat forum shopping

Mayer Brown’s blog, Real Bankruptcy Intel, explains:

Following the controversy surrounding Purdue[‘s careful filing of a bankruptcy petition designed to land specifically with Judge Robert Drain], as well as a lull in filings nationwide, in November, the SDNY elected to adopt a random case assignment system. Specifically, subdivision (f) of Local Bankruptcy Rule 1073-1 now states:

    1. Mega Chapter 11 Cases. Notwithstanding subdivision (a) of this rule, the Clerk shall assign a mega chapter 11 case to a Judge in the District by random selection irrespective of the courthouse in which the case is filed. A chapter 11 case qualifies as a mega chapter 11 case if the assets or liabilities of the debtor are equal to or greater than $100 million. A multi-debtor chapter 11 case qualifies as a mega chapter 11 case if the cumulative assets or cumulative liabilities of the filing debtors are equal to or greater than $100 million.[5]

Therefore, as of December 1, cases filed in the SDNY are to be assigned on a random basis to judges irrespective of the courthouse in which they are filed. As part of this rule, any SDNY judge can preside over a case in a courthouse where he or she is not usually assigned. Chief Judge Cecelia G. Morris explained that she hopes the adoption of this system will result in a more balanced utilization of judicial resources.[6] Judge Drain himself also commented that he “supported the change unanimously.”[7] Such adaptation now places the SDNY on par with the District of Delaware—another longstanding hotspot for mega chapter 11 cases—which already had a random assignment system in place. This move is likely to prevent debtors from “judge shopping” within the district.

Within a month of the SDNY’s announcement, the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (the district that contains Richmond and Alexandria) also implemented a similar rule.[8]

GAO questions judiciary’s system for prioritizing courthouse construction

Here is a very interesting example of the federal judiciary’s interdependence with the rest of the federal government. The responsibility for maintaining and operating the 420 federal courthouses across the country is shared by the judiciary, the U.S. Marshals Service, the General Services Administration, and the Federal Protective Service. And construction or maintenance of courthouses but also be authorized and funded by Congress, with oversight assistance from the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The upshot of this entanglement is that significant changes or improvements to federal courthouses must work their way through multiple layers of bureaucracy before anything gets done.

And so it is here. In 2008, after one significant wave of courthouse construction had been completed, the federal judiciary implemented an Asset Management Process (AMP) to prioritize courthouses most desperately in need of upgrades or new construction. Five years later, the GAO signed off on the process. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) then began the laborious task of assessing the condition of every federal courthouse in the country. By 2020, it had completed assessments of 385 courthouses, or 92 percent, with respect to security, space standards, functionality, the condition of judges’ workspaces, and the general condition of courtrooms and facilities. The judiciary assured the GAO that its assessments were accurate as of the time they were completed.

But the GAO was not satisfied. Asked to review the AO’s courthouse assessments, it concluded that several had become outdated and were therefore over- or under-prioritized for improvements. (For example, two courthouses were destroyed by recent hurricanes, yet their condition was not updated by the AO.) Yesterday the GAO issued a 62-page report outlining its concerns, as well as specific steps that the AO must take to improve the assessment process.

Some might look at the GAO as a necessary watchdog to make sure that the government does not spend money in the wrong places. Others might see this as wasteful bureaucracy run amok. The point here is simply that the business of operating courts is inextricably, and often invisibly to the public, tied to the demands, whims, and queries of many other actors. And that is interdependence in a nutshell.

A tentative settlement in the PACER fee lawsuit?

Reuters reports that a settlement is brewing in the class action lawsuit alleging that the federal judiciary overcharged users for PACER access. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but after several years of litigation, including a trip to the Court of Appeals, it appears that the case may be coming to a private resolution in the next few months.

I shared thoughts on the PACER lawsuit, and the larger questions it poses for the court system, here.

Joe Biden buries the lead on his own judicial nominees

Joe Biden’s Very Bad Week continues with this unnecessarily tone-deaf press release about his latest round of federal judicial nominees. The nominees themselves are outstanding and highly qualified, and most have judicial experience at the state or federal level. Indeed, several of the nominees have been federal magistrate judges, which gives them special insight into the nuts and bolts of common procedures like arraignments (on the criminal side) and discovery disputes (on the civil side). 

But that evidently matters less to the President (and his advisors) than the nominees’ race and gender. The primary focus of the press release is on the number of Latina and Black nominees in this slate. Nothing is said up front about any of their accomplishments (except in very vague and broad language) or (in several cases) their relative youth, assuring the potential for a multi-decade career on the bench. It’s an insult to the nominees, at what should be a great moment in their legal careers, to reduce them to demographic avatars for the purpose of promoting a political agenda.

Let’s give the nominees some of the credit they deserve. Buried deep in the press release, we learn about this slate’s extraordinary diversity of legal experience: on the bench, as both prosecutors and public defenders, in the legal academy, and in private practice in areas ranging from family law to intellectual property. Some even have experience with social work and public education. That range of experience, and the different perspectives is must inculcate, will help the entire federal judicary — both in the courtroom and behind the scenes.

Congratulations to all the nominees.

What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?

Everyone wants the same thing and Congress seems ready to act. So why is the court system trying to keep legislation at bay?

Recently, I have been diving back into organizational theory — a set of theoretical frameworks about how organizations operate which inspired the creation of this blog in 2017. I have been particularly curious about the extent to which the behavior of courts and court systems — as opposed to individual judges — can be explained by external pressures from the courts’ environment. Although much of organizational theory began as a way of explaining the behavior of private firms, it has been extended to the public sector, and I am now convinced that it can profitably explain a wide range of court system behaviors.

Take a very recent example: the Wall Street Journal investigation this month, which revealed that more than 130 federal judges had presided over cases involving companies in which they owned stock. Such financial conflicts clearly require recusal, and while many (perhaps most) of the judges who did notJudge_Jennifer_Walker_Elrod recuse gave plausible explanations that they had simply failed to keep tabs on their trades, the situation has been highly embarrassing for the federal judiciary. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said that the report was “troubling” and that it was “carefully reviewing the matter.” And this week, Fifth Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod appeared before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee to reaffirm that the federal courts “have taken and will continue to take action to ensure ethical obligations, including recusal and reporting requirements, are met.”

Such assurances may not be be enough for Congress. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses to tighten recusal and reporting requirements. The Senate bill would also require the AO to develop a publicly accessible, searchable online database of judges’ financial disclosures. The federal court system therefore finds itself scrambling to avoid a legislative mandate by showing that it is able to police its financial conflicts internally. Even then, it may not be able to stave off new legislation.

This may seem like ordinary damage control. But the court system’s specific behaviors to date, and range of possible responses going forward, can also be understood through the lens of an organizational theory known as neo-institutionalism. And that theory suggests that the court system’s response is very deliberate and very calculated. Continue reading “What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?”

Portland’s federal courthouse attacked again

The Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, which sustained significant damage in last summer’s Antifa riots, was attacked again over the weekend — just three days after federal officials removed the non-scalable fencing that had surrounded the courthouse since August. (The fencing has since returned.)

As shown in the video directly below, vandals broke courthouse windows and covered the building with obscene graffiti.

 

The Oregonian has a powerful article chronicling the damage, not only the the physical building but also to the public psyche.

Among the graffiti left on the front of the courthouse was a message that said in red, “NAZI’S WORK HERE.”

“As a first generation American whose parents lived through the horrors of World War II, in England and in Norway, you can’t say anything more offensive than alleging that the people who work inside that building, who I know and love, are Nazis,” Acting U.S. Attorney Scott Asphaug said Sunday.

“That building represents justice,” he said. “This is where people come to have their civil rights heard.”

The staff, attorneys and judges have continued to conduct courthouse operations throughout the past year’s mass protests, and will continue to do so undeterred, Asphaug said. Asphaug said he supports the rights of people to protest and make their voices heard but doesn’t support riotous behavior and the damage to the courthouse.

“The people who work in that building are a lot stronger than graffiti and broken windows,” he said, “and they’ll continue to do the important work they do.”

Anerican institutions may be imperfect, but they are grounded in time-honored truths about the value of liberty, opportunity, and equality. Their assailants, by contrast, are little more than common thugs and intellectual frauds.

More fallout from the Solar Winds hack

After last month’s revelation that the federal court system was among the victims of the Solar Winds cyberhack, leaving thousands of sensitive documents in the hands of Russian hackers, members of Congress are now demanding answers about the extent of the fallout. As one story notes:

Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse, Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons, Mazie Hirono, and Cory Booker all signed on to a letter to the chief information officer at the Department of Justice and associate director of the administrative office of the U.S. Courts on Jan. 20 demanding a hearing on the changes and the potential access of court documents by the hackers.

“We are alarmed at the potential large-scale breach of sensitive and confident records and communications held by the DOJ and AO, and write to urgently request information about the impact and the steps being taken to mitigate the threat of this intrusion,” the senators wrote.

It’s not immediately clear to me why all of the signatories are Democratic senators. Perhaps it’s more pointless partisanship from a deeply dysfunctional Senate Judiciary Committee. But cybersecurity for the courts should be a bipartisan concern, and one can only hope that it will be treated as such.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has alraedy announced a plan to maintain sensitive filings on paper for the foreseeable future. We’ll see what develops in the coming weeks.

 

Cybersecurity breach affected federal courts

The SolarWinds cybersecurity breach that affected several federal agencies and private tech companies last month apparently also infiltrated the federal court system, according to reports. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts yesterday announced additional safeguards to protect sensitive court records. According to the AO’s press release,

Under the new procedures announced today, highly sensitive court documents (HSDs) filed with federal courts will be accepted for filing in paper form or via a secure electronic device, such as a thumb drive, and stored in a secure stand-alone computer system. These sealed HSDs will not be uploaded to CM/ECF. This new practice will not change current policies regarding public access to court records, since sealed records are confidential and currently are not available to the public.

Shades of the cyberattack that hit the Texas courts earlier this year. That involved ransomware, but it equally exposed the courts’ vulnerabilities involving modern technology