There is plenty of room for constructive compromise, but it requires everyone to acknowledge that “free” PACER is not actually free.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, H.R. 8235, by a voice vote. The bill would radically reform access to federal court records by requiring (among other things) that the courts’ PACER system be modernized and its contents made free to the public. The bill drew praise from open courts advocates, and furious pushback from the Judicial Conference and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). Indeed, the Judicial Conference’s reaction was probably the most vigorous response I have seen from the courts in many years.
It is a rare piece of legislation these days that can simultaneously garner bipartisan support and solicit institutional panic from the judicial branch. So it’s worth examining closely. What we find is an opportunity for the court system to improve its transparency and its own performance, albeit not on the schedule or in the manner it would prefer. Continue reading “Making sense of the new PACER bill”
In the wake of the horrific shooting of Judge Esther Salas’s son and husband at her New Jersey home last month, the Judicial Conference of the United States has resolved to seek aggressive legislation and funding to better protect federal judges and their families. The Judicial Conference’s press release, which lays out its proposals, is here.
Let’s hope that Congress acts quickly to provide the necessary resources.
After a two-and-a-half year wait, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the decision of Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in National Veterans Legal Services et al. v. United States. The plaintiffs in that case argued that the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts exceeded their statutory authorization by using PACER fees to fund internal court projects that were unrelated to the administration of the PACER system itself. (PACER is part of the federal courts’ electronic filing system, which allows the public to access most documents that are filed for a 10 cent/page fee.) The government argued that funding the additional projects did not exceed the court’s authority.
In March 2018, on cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Huvelle split the difference, concluding as a matter of statutory interpretation that the courts had properly used PACER fees to fund certain projects–including the development of the electronci filing system itself–but had overstepped its bounds in using funds to provide electronic notice to jurors, assist with state court records in Mississippi, and other tangential projects. (I previosuly explored Judge Huvelle’s opinion, and the policies underlying the larger question of PACER fees, here.)
The Federal Circuit concluded that Judge Huvelle’s opinion “got it just right.” But it also added its own gloss on the relationship between the courts and the other branches of government, as seen through the lens of PACER revenue. Continue reading “Federal Circuit affirms PACER fee decision”
The federal courts’ COVID-19 Judicial Task Force released a detailed report on Wednesday, containing recommendations for conducting jury trials and convening grand juries during the coronavirus pandemic. This Bloomberg Law piece provides a bit of additional context.
The report relies on guidance from the Center for Disease Control, and acknowledges that district courts may be ready to open, and open more fully, at different times during the next few weeks. It is a careful, detailed, and thoughtful report. It also illustrates the complex issues that virtually every organization — public or private — is facing right now regarding reopening: cleaning, social distancing, virus screening, transparency, scheduling, travel safety, and so on. Ask any school administrator, business owner, local bureaucrat, or public official, and you’ll hear about the same predictive difficulties.
The bottom line: courts are navigating this crisis just like the rest of us. Preparation is essential, but only time will provide real clarity.
Hoping not to be bullied is not a worthy strategy for a co-equal branch of government.
A little over two years ago, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) issued a new policy which barred its employees and staff from engaging in partisan political activity, including posting yard signs or making ordinary campaign donations. I predicted at the time that the First Amendment implications would likely turn the new policy into a headache for the AO.
And so it did. In May of 2018, two AO employees filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the policy violated their First Amendment right to engage in core political speech. Last week, the court agreed, granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs and promising to enter a permanent injunction preventing the AO from applying its policies to most of its employees. The court’s opinion is eye-opening, both for the district judge’s robust defense of First Amendment rights and for the AO’s cowardly view of the judiciary’s place in American society.
Continue reading “The federal courts try to self-censor. A federal judge says no.”
A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.
It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.
Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”
Last week, Congress passed the CARES Act, which most notably was designed to give a push to the American economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Nestled within that Act was a provision that permitted the Judicial Conference of the United States to determine that “emergency conditions due to the national emergency declared by the President with respect to COVID-19 will materially affect the functioning of the federal courts generally.” Such a finding would then permit chief judges of individual federal district courts to temporarily authorize videoconferences or teleconferences in certain criminal proceedings, solely in response to the coronavirus crisis.
The Judicial Conference made that authorization on Sunday, leaving it now to individual districts to determine whether to implement videoconferencing. It is worth noting that the legislation (which was passed with significant input from the Judicial Conference) is relatively narrow, and applies only to the current COVID-19 emergency. Moreover, the general authorization applies only to certain types of criminal proceedings: in particular, no felony plea or sentencing could be done by video- or teleconference unless the district court makes additional findings that such proceedings (1) cannot be done in person “without seriously jeopardizing public health and safety”, and (2) that “there are specific reasons that the plea or sentencing in that case cannot be further delayed without serious harm to the interests of justice.”
This is an entirely practical step, representing collaboration between Congress and the courts to protect the efficient operation of the criminal justice system. Whether it will open the door for further use of videoconferencing in non-emergency situations, however, is very much unsettled. And the current legislation has drawn criticism in some circles that it reduces much-needed transparency in criminal justice.
Judge Claire Eagan (N.D. Okla.) is the new Chair, replacing Judge Merrick Garland. Judge Lavenski Smith (8th Circuit) also joins the Committee as a new member.
More on the Executive Committee here.
The Wall Street Journal reports today (through a staff editorial) that the Judicial Conference of the United States is considering banning federal judges from affiliating with either the libertarian/conservative leaning Federalist Society or its left-leaning counterpart, the American Constitution Society (ACS). The proposed ban comes out of one of the Judicial Conference committees, the Committee on Codes of Conduct, which addresses issues of federal judicial ethics.
According to the editorial, the current draft of the proposal states, in part:
“In sum, the Committee advises that formal affiliation with the ACS or the Federalist Society, whether as a member or in a leadership role, is inconsistent with Canons 1, 2, 4, and 5 of the Code [of Conduct for United States Judges]…”
“Official affiliation with either organization could convey to a reasonable person that the affiliated judge endorses the views and particular ideological perspectives advocated by the organization; call into question the affiliated judge’s impartiality on subjects as to which the organization has taken a position; and generally frustrate the public’s trust in the integrity and independence of the judiciary.”
Given the ongoing efforts of both major political parties to politicize the judiciary, it’s not hard to see why the Committee is sensitive to the organizational affiliations of its judges. But this idea (assuming it is being correctly reported) is both impractical and unwarranted, for at least five reasons. Continue reading “Five reasons why the federal judiciary’s proposed ban on Federalist Society affiliation is a terrible idea”
Court transparency is essential, but it cannot be one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s why.
Several recent articles in the popular press and academic literature have grappled with the issue of transparency. Professor Scott Dodson has written about the “open-courts norm” in the United States which, “accentuated by the First Amendment,” guarantees that criminal (and in most cases, civil) proceedings are open to the public. And, channeling Homer Simpson, Professor David Pozen has described government transparency “as the cause of, and solution to, a remarkable range of problems.” Outside the academic world, organizations such as Fix the Court are issuing their own transparency report cards to draw attention to the refusal of some courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) to broadcast oral arguments.
These commentators are on to something important. As public organizations, courts are expected to be broadly transparent about their activities. But not all forms of court transparency are the same. Some types of transparency are necessary to the courts’ survival, while other types of transparency would actually undermine the courts’ operations. It is worth considering why.
Continue reading “What is the right level of court system transparency?”