Texas holds first Zoom jury trial

Yesterday, Texas held the first jury trial to be conducted exclusively through Zoom videoconferencing. The one-day summary jury trial was also livestreamed on YouTube.

This represents a major development, given that every other jurisdiction has simply postponed jury trials until courthouses reopen.  And judges are increasingly opening to the idea of remote trials in some form. On the other hand, some judges remain steadfastly opposed to trials outside the physical courtroom, and with courthouses beginning to reopen in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen how common videoconference trials will become.

Texas court system suffers ransomware attack

Last week, the Texas appeals courts and judicial agencies suffered a ransomware attack that disabled their IT network for several days. The situation was caught quickly and state court administrators created a temporary website. Officials have stressed that no personal information was stolen, and that the attack had no effect on the courts’ use of online hearings in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia’s state courts experienced a similar ransomware attack last July.

Although no harm seems to have come out of this latest incident, it does underscore the vulnerability of technological networks and the potential effect on the administration of justice.

The latest on state appellate arguments by videoconference

This Law.com article has a nice summary of where state appellate courts stand on videoconferencing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. It focuses on courts in Georgia, but usefully points out where other states are in the process as well.

Legal industry responds to coronavirus crisis with “calls for kindness”

I really like this story from Law360, which profiles a number of lawyers and judges across the country who are emphasizing patience and kindness in a profession too often built on time pressure and adversarialism. Some snippets:

On Thursday, [Chief Justice Ralph Gants] sent a letter to the Massachusetts and Boston bar associations, urging attorneys to work with the courts and each other “to create their own version of [mobile triage] units” to figure out how to protect the most vulnerable, preserve individual rights, resolve disputes and carry on.

“If we stand strong, resilient, and adaptive, and work together as judiciary and bar to find ‘duct tape’ solutions to immediate problems that otherwise might take years to solve, we will leave this crisis with a better, more resilient system of justice,” he said.

The judge added, “And perhaps, if we do our jobs well, a future generation will say of us, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

***

U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg of the Northern District of Georgia issued an order to every case on her docket with some words of advice to attorneys battling it out in her jurisdiction: “Be kind.”

“Be kind to one another in this most stressful of times,” Judge Totenberg wrote. “Remember to maintain your perspective about legal disputes, given the larger life challenges now besetting our communities and world.

“Good luck to one and all.”

A subscription to Law360 may be required to read the whole article, but access it if you can. It’s a nice reminder that when the moment calls for it, we can surely become our better selves.

 

Judge Van Pelt wins in Georgia; Justice Goodson advances in Arkansas

I previously noted the bizarre story of Georgia Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt, a twenty-year veteran of the court who was promised a “blood sport” campaign by a local kingmaker. Last night, Judge Van Pelt fought off his challenger, Melissa Hise, winning over 52% of the vote.

A couple states away, Arkansas Justice Courtney Goodson advanced to a two-way race with a local attorney to keep her seat, after a whirlwind couple of weeks in which Goodson sued an out-of-state group for broadcasting defamatory attack ads against her. That lawsuit produced a preliminary injunction against the ads in some Arkansas counties but not others, and the case is still pending.

Perhaps the cauldron of a political campaign improves one’s skill, patience, and approach to judging. But I am having trouble seeing it.

An example of nomination cascades in Georgia

I recently wrote a post for Prawfsblawg on judicial nomination cascades, in which a sitting judge is elevated to a higher court, leaving a seat on the bench which itself must be filled. Sometimes the cascade stops after the second appointment, but on occasion we see triple or even quadruple cascades, as each seat is subsequently filled with a judge from a lower court. (A commenter to the Prawfsblawg post, for example, noted the Rehnquist-Scalia-Sentelle-Voorhees cascade at the federal level in 1986-87).

Federal nomination cascades often run to the state level, where governors (and occasionally legislatures) typically have authority to fill judicial vacancies by appointment. In recent weeks, the Georgia Court of Appeals has been particularly affected: three judges have been nominated (and two confirmed) for federal positions. With another judge retiring soon, Governor Nathan Deal will have to fill four of the court’s fifteen seats in short order.

Georgians should be proud that their intermediate appellate court has produced so many jurists thought worthy of federal positions. But the state will have to act quickly and carefully to keep the Court of Appeals at full strength.

 

Georgia judge faces contested election after prominent local attorney promises “blood sport”

Georgia Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt, Jr., a twenty-year veteran of the bench, will be opposed for reelection for the first time after a local attorney threatened “blood sport” against him.

In late 2016, prominent local attorney Bobby Lee Cook wrote to Judge Van Pelt: “I want you to finish your two years remaining on your term and to qualify for re-election — if you have the stamina and resolve! There is nothing so interesting as a Northwest Georgia election where politics for generations has been a ‘blood sport.'” Cook was apparently infuriated by Judge Van Pelt’s position that Cook’s daughter–herself a local judge–was not qualified to serve as the circuit’s chief judge.

Cook, a lawyer since 1949, considers himself to be a local power broker.  He has represented many prominent Georgia families and was portrayed in the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Cook credits himself with placing Van Pelt on the bench in 1996.

Last week, attorney Melissa Hise announced that she would challenge Judge Van Pelt in May’s election. Cook says he supports Hise’s candidacy but has nothing to do with it.

Van Pelt is more suspicious.  “As a general rule,” he said, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”