How far can Congress probe the judicial thought process?

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Josh Blackman has a fascinating post (really, a series of posts) about the efforts of ten Democratic Senators to force two Eleventh Circuit judges to “explain” their involvement in Florida’s felon disenfranchisement cases.

The brief background is this: the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on a challenge to state legislation conditioning the restoration of a convicted felon’s right to vote on the payment of legal financial obligations. Two of the Justices on the court at the time, Robert Luck and Barbara Lagoa, had been nominated for seats on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Both Justices asked questions during oral argument, but were confirmed to the Eleventh Circuit just weeks later. Accordingly, neither Justice had any role in the outcome of the case.

On July 15 the plaintiffs, having sought review in federal court, requested that both judges recuse themselves from the Eleventh Circuit’s deliberations. The request was grounded on the fact that the judges had merely asked questions during oral argument while on the Florida Supreme Court, even though they had taken no part in the decision. (This was factually reminiscent of the Ninth Circuit case of Yovino v. Rizo, involving a judge who had voted on a case but died before it was announced; here, however, the judges did not vote at all.)

Professor Blackman had a very sensible take whether recusal was necessary in the Eleventh Circuit case:

Judges are allowed to change their views. And that malleability is a good thing. I would be troubled if judges walked into arguments with a set predisposition, that could not be disturbed.

Yovino demonstrates that a Judge’s questions during oral arguments, and even a conference vote, are not “immutable.” Judges are allowed to keep an open mind till late in the game. These preliminary matters are not enough to question a judge’s impartiality. The only decision that counts is the final order. Judges Luck and Lagoa did not participate in the Florida Supreme Court’s published decision. Therefore, they are not disqualified.

But it’s 2020, and legal arguments aren’t good enough for the political class. Hence, the subpoenas. Blackman’s take (which you should read in its entirety) concludes:

I have serious doubts about whether Congress has the power to subpoena a judge to testify about internal judicial matters. I think Congress could justify that subpoena as part of an impeachment inquiry. But a general need for information to craft legislation would not be suitable.

I am not a constitutional scholar, but that strikes me as correct.

A brief history of New Jersey Supreme Court appointments

The New Jersey Globe has put together a useful series of articles on gubernatorial appointments to the state supreme court since 1947. Garden Staters and those interested in the court’s history (and its political dimensions) should take notice.

Alfred Driscoll’s First Seven Picks

The Meyner Court

The Cahill Court

The Byrne Court

The Kean Court

The Whitman Court

The McGreevy and Corzine Courts

The Christie Court

 

Iowa gets new Chief Justice

The Supreme Court of Iowa has selected Justice Susan Christensen to be its next Chief Justice. She will take over duties from Acting Chief Justice David Wiggins, who is set to retire from the court in mid-March. Wiggins stepped into the interim role after the sudden death of Chief Justice Mark Cady last November.

Christensen will administer to and preside over a five-member court that has been radically remade in the last few years. Governor Kim Reynolds has already appointed three members of the court since 2017, and the Wiggins retirement will provide an opportunity to appoint a fourth justice.

“Myths and Realities” about Trump’s judicial appointments

Many politicians, advocacy groups, and journalists have written about President Trump’s federal judicial appointments over his first three years, with the dominant narrative being that he has transformed the judiciary by appointing more judges, with more far-right leaning ideologies, than any President in history.

Russell Wheeler looks at the data underlying these assertions, and finds the story to be much more nuanced. As with everything Russell writes, the post is worth an immediate and careful read.

A swap of judges to keep the machinery of justice moving

This is an interesting story from Owensboro, Kentucky. Judge Joe Castlen retired from the local Circuit Court, but agreed to keep working in his position until a new judge could be elected to take his place. And although the election will not take place until next month, we already know the winner: District Judge Lisa Payne Jones, who is the only candidate on the ballot.

Jones’s inevitable ascension to the Circuit Court leaves a hole on the District Court, and the process of filling that seat might take some time. So Judge Castlen, who previously served on the District Court, agreed to fill that seat again until a successor is found — meaning effectively that he will swap places with Judge Jones.

Good for Judge Castlen for agreeing to take on the new role so that the District Court can keep up with its docket. It’s an elegant, if temporary, solution to a curious staffing problem.

Polish government accedes to ECJ ruling on forced judicial retirement

It has been a while since we checked in on Poland’s judicial reforms, most of which have been openly hostile to the country’s judiciary. One of the latest reforms would lower the retirement age of judges from 70 to 65, effectively removing about two dozen experienced judges from the bench, and correspondingly allowing the government to appoint new judges in their place. It’s court packing without the packing.

The European Commission sued Poland over the legislation in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), on the grounds that it was part of a larger set of “systemic threats to the rule of law” which could trigger the loss of Poland’s voting rights in the European Union. In October, the ECJ suspended the legislation pending a permanent resolution. It upheld the interim injunction on Monday.

In response, Polish President Andrej Duda signed new legislation revoking the early retirement bill. Is this a sign that the Polish government is moderating its stance on judicial reform under EU pressure? Stay tuned.

West Virginia impeachment update

From the National Constitution Center, an update on events occurring over the last couple of weeks:

In the late-night hours of August 13, West Virginia’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed articles of impeachment against all four sitting Justices, accusing them of maladministration, corruption, incompetence, neglect of duty, and certain high crimes. (Justice Menis Ketchum had previously resigned after being charged with wire fraud for personal use of a state vehicle and fuel card. He recently pled guilty to those charges.)

On Saturday, August 25, Gov. Jim Justice named Republicans Tim Armstead and Rep. Evan Jenkins to fill the seats vacated by Justice Robin Davis and Ketchum, both elected as Democrats. Davis had retired after the impeachment charges were approved.

Impeachment trials are set to begin in the state senate on September 11. A two-thirds senate majority is needed to convict. If any justices are convicted, Gov. Justice will appoint replacements that will serve until 2020. Armstead and Jenkins will serve until November 2018, when they will have to run in a special election to attempt to keep their seats.

This is going to get very messy, very soon.

Scenes from a tire fire: Day One of the Kavanaugh hearings

Yesterday’s first day of confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh was a colossal embarrassment for everyone, save perhaps the nominee himself. It began with a series of sophomoric interruptions from protesters inside the Senate chamber–an undignified and unfortunate extension of our current national tantrum, which increasingly values volume and resistance over logic or civility. Watching the early minutes of the hearing, I kept waiting for a member of the committee–Chairman Grassley, or for that matter any of the Democrats within whose camp the protesters fell–to make explicit that such interruptions were entirely inappropriate and undignified. I waited in vain. As it was, the ongoing shrieks made it appear that no one really was in control of the moment.

It went largely downhill from there, culminating later in the day in an appalling libel of Judge Kavanaugh’s former clerk Zina Bash by social media trolls on the left, who accused Bash–a Mexican-born granddaughter of Holocaust survivors–of being a white supremacist. The whole event was a sad display of our dysfunctional politics, and a good example of the behavior that judges work to prevent in their own courtrooms.

Indeed, yesterday’s hearing sorely needed a presiding judge–an authority figure with some spine, wisdom, knowledge, and confidence. Nowhere was that better illustrated than during the interminable debate among committee members about the late-produced (or still withheld) documents relating to Judge Kavanaugh’s career. Continue reading “Scenes from a tire fire: Day One of the Kavanaugh hearings”

Examining the impact of President Trump’s judicial appointments

It has been widely reported that President Trump is filling federal judicial vacancies at a much faster pace than his predecessors. But the political impact of that pace is blunted by several factors, including the fact that most existing vacancies were created by the retirement of a previous Republican appointee, and the fact that many circuit courts continue to be dominated by Democratic appointees.

Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution provides an outstanding analysis of the impact of the President’s judicial appointments here. It is highly recommended reading, as is everything Russell writes on this and related issues.

Update on West Virginia Supreme Court impeachment proceedings

Today, the West Virginia House of Delegates will begin considering articles of impeachment against 80% of its supreme court. Fourteen articles were brought against four justices last week, mostly related to overspending, fraud, and creating a culture of overspending and fraud.

The full articles of impeachment can be found here.

Meanwhile, Judge Paul Farrell was sworn in as a temporary supreme court justice on Friday, replacing Allen Loughry, who has been suspended. (Loughry continues to hold his title and is one of the four justices facing impeachment.) In a strange twist, Chief Justice Margaret Workman (who is also facing impeachment) issued an administrative order appointing Farrell as acting chief justice for impeachment proceedings. In other words, if the House votes to impeach all four justices, a brand new justice with a temporary appointment would be thrust into the unenviable position of presiding over the trial.