How coronavirus is affecting the courts — April 3 update

The novel coronavirus is affecting societies worldwide, and judicial systems are no exception. Here is a selection of the latest news and profile stories on how courts are dealing with the epidemic:

What is the state of Israel’s courts in the time of coronavirus? (Jerusalem Post)

Uncertainty looms over Supreme Court as lower courts transition to teleconferencing (Washington Free Beacon)

Federal Judge’s Sentencing acknowledges COVID-19 (Forbes) (a story about the sentencing of certain defendants in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal)

COVID-19 and Online Dispute Resolution: It’s a Whole New World Out There (op-ed for the Connecticut Law Tribune)

7th Circuit suspends most paper copies to slow spread of COVID-19 (Chicago Daily Law Bulletin)

Previous roundup coverage here. And check the home page for additional discussion of coronavirus and the courts.

 

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?”

Still more embarrassment for the “Chicago Way” of choosing judges

Over the past three years, his blog has tracked the litany of shocking stories coming out of Chicago area judicial elections — shocking, that is, for anywhere except Cook County. There, it seems, the sulfurous mix of identity politics, voter ignorance, and unscrupulous candidates is a way of life.

This week, the Chicago Sun-Times and Injustice Watch added another depressing data point: “sham” judicial candidates who are placed on the ballot simply to confuse voters and throw the election. Here’s how it is alleged to work: when it appears that a candidate preferred by the city’s Democratic establishment is at risk of losing a judicial race, one or more “sham” candidates will enter the race and be added to the ballot. The “sham” candidates are not real, in the sense that they expend no money on the campaign, conduct no campaign events (and often barely have a campaign website), and don’t seem sincerely interested in a judicial post. But these “sham” candidates do have something in common: names that appeal to voters’ identity politics (which is Chicago, translates mostly to feminine -sounding first names and Irish surnames). The expectation is that voters, who have done no research on the judicial candidates on the ballot, will simply vote for those who sound like Irish-American women. (And there is proof that this expectation plays out in real life.) The “sham” candidates confuse enough voters to draw votes away from the non-establishment candidate, allowing the establishment candidate to prevail.

It’s doesn’t always work. The article, for example, relates how the presence of alleged “sham” candidate Bonnie McGrath in 2016 was not enough to prevent the victory of non-establishment candidate Carol Gallagher. And the alleged “sham” candidates have protested that despite their utter lack of campaign activity, their desire to be judges is sincere. But let’s be honest: the entire process is still shameful — or at least it should be, if the party bosses behind this ruse were capable of shame.

 

The Illinois courts — we’re not dysfunctional!

There is something odd about the tone of this e-newsletter from Illinois Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier. It is ostensibly announcing good news about a significant funding increase for the Illinois state court system in 2020. But Karmeier takes a weird stab at his colleagues on other, “dysfunctional” state courts, as well as lamenting the same “dysfunction” of the other branches of government in his own state. The article itself is a fairly benign piece praising the court system’s new “workable” budget, but it is written with a bit more color than one might expect from a state chief justice.

Karmeier’s election to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004 was rife with political intrigue, and I do not follow the Illinois courts enough to speak to his professional mannerisms or various political pressures on the courts of that state. Readers can judge for themselves whether I am reading too much into this.

It worked! Chicago lawyer who changed his name to sound more Irish is finally elected as a judge

This blog has followed the story of Phillip Spiwack, a Chicago-area lawyer who legally changed his name in 2012 to Shannon O’Malley. The reason for the change: he was planning to run for judge in Cook County, and recognized the stubborn reality that having an Irish woman’s name would be a valuable commodity at the polls.

Spiwack lost his first race in 2010 while using his original name. The next year, the DePaul Law Review published a study showing that Cook County judicial candidates with Irish and female names tended to have an advantage in judicial elections. Spiwack changed his name to Shannon O’Malley shortly thereafter, and then deliberately sat out judicial races for the next several cycles to circumvent a state law requiring candidates who undergo a name change within three years of an election to disclose their old names on the ballot.

The plan worked. O’Malley won his election last week, even though he refused to submit his qualifications to any local bar associations and therefore did not receive any bar recommendations.

O’Malley may or may not prove to be a good judge. But this whole episode speaks poorly of the low-information judicial voters in Chicago.

Cook County’s e-filing system continues to experience problems

Cook County’s efforts to implement an electronic filing system has run into its fair share of obstacles over the past year. Last November, the Courthouse News Service filed suit against the county, alleging that the clerk’s office was delaying the posting of public documents online, in violation of the First Amendment. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court gave the county a six-month extension to implement its e-filing system (half the time the county requested), and ordered it to commit all necessary resources to completing the transition. In January, a judge issued an injunction in the Courthouse News Service case which gave the county 30 days to develop a system that would give the press full access to newly filed cases.

After months of turmoil, the e-filing system is now in place. And people don’t like it. At all.

In theory, e-filing is supposed to increase access to the courts, enabling people without an attorney in civil cases to submit legal documents from a computer instead of trekking to a courthouse. But many paralegals and attorneys who find the mandatory platform confusing worry that it’s not user-friendly for people filing motions on their own. The system, launched July 1 by an Illinois Supreme Court order, also requires registrants to have an email address and an electronic form of payment, something advocates say can create barriers for low-income people.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she is working with the vendor, Texas-based Tyler Technologies, to make the platform more intuitive. But the changes need to be approved by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts because they are part of a statewide program, Brown said.

“It’s been very challenging and difficult for our users as well as our staff,” Brown said. “We’re really asking our users to be patient.”

 

Chicago judge settles lawsuit over court layoffs

Late last year, the Cook County (Ill.) Board ordered the termination of nearly 180 county court employees, in light of rampant financial problems throughout the county. That action spurred Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans to file a lawsuit against the Board to enjoin the layoffs. Chief Judge Evans argued that even though the Board had power to set the courts’ budget, it did not have the authority to target individual employees for layoffs.

The Lake County Circuit Court agreed in December, issuing a temporary restraining order against the county to prevent the layoffs. Now, nearly eight months later, the parties have reached a settlement.

Both sides are claiming victory. The Board is saying that the settlement amount is “much lower than what was initially demanded” and that it will promote efficiencies in the court system. Chief Judge Evans points to the loss of only 22 jobs (as opposed the the initial 180), and his belief that “the lawsuit made clear that the county board had no authority to lay off court employees.”