Federal courts issue guidance for reopening, including conducting jury trials

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.

 

The federal courts try to self-censor. A federal judge says no.

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.”

COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going

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”

Judicial Conference authorizes federal courts to hold certain criminal proceedings electronically

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.

Chief Justice makes new appointments to the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference

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.

Five reasons why the federal judiciary’s proposed ban on Federalist Society affiliation is a terrible idea

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”

What is the right level of court system transparency?

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?”

Committee work — it’s not just for academics

With the start of its new fiscal year today, the Judicial Conference of the United States announced the chairs of several of its internal committees. Some of the chairs are new, and others are current leaders who will be retained for another year. The full press release is here.

Although the announcement is relatively pedestrian, it provides a wonderful insight into the inner workings of the federal court system. The names of the committees themselves are suggestive of the range of work that takes place outside of the eye of the general public: The Committee on Information Technology, the Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction, The Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability, and the Committee on Space and Facilities, among others.

The Committees are headed by, and mostly populated by, federal judges — the same judges that are managing complex dockets, holding trials and hearings, handling emergency motions, drafting detailed opinions, sentencing convicted felons, and otherwise addressing the judicial work that flows into their chambers daily. The Chief Justice hand-picks each member of each Committee — not just the chairs — and asks each member to take on additional administrative duties for the good of the overall court system. And like all committee work, it seems, the most effective and efficient members are asked to stay longer and do more.

Professors notoriously complain about their own committee work, which takes them away from class preparation, research, and writing (not to mention family). But most still take on the work cheerfully for the good of their respective schools. Judges are no different, and their service in this area is commendable.

Congratulations to all the new chairs.

Why the Judicial Conference is asking for more judges

Last week, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress add 73 permanent judgeships around the country. These are new judicial positions which would have to be filled, above and beyond the more than 120 existing federal judicial vacancies nationwide.

Political commentators have predictably seen this request through partisan lenses, noting (for example) that if all the requested judgeships were added and filled in short order, President Trump could “flip” the ideological composition of the Ninth Circuit. Given the current ugliness in Washington over proposals to pack the Supreme Court for partisan gain, it’s not entirely surprising that some would see the Judicial Conference’s request for more judges as having similarly political dimensions.

But the Conference must make its recommendation to Congress every two years, and that recommendation is based on hard evidence concerning the workload of the courts. Law360 has a good breakdown of the statistics behind the request, noting that nearly a third of the federal district courts have per-judge workloads that far exceed the recommended level.

It’s not clear if and when Congress will act on the request, although I certainly would not hold my breath on anything happening soon. In the meantime, the federal court system will continue to rely on internal strategies to manage its workload, including the use of senior judges and visiting judges in courts with otherwise crushing dockets.

The PACER class action and the problem of court funding

Which is the best model for charging for access to court records: a rest stop, a bus pass, or a bake sale?

What (if anything) should the judiciary charge for public access to records, and how should that decision be made? That question is now squarely facing the federal courts and Congress.

I have blogged periodically about the 2016 class action lawsuit alleging that the federal courts overcharged users for access to its electronic public records system (known as PACER), and used the surplus to fund a variety of internal projects. Last spring, a federal district judge granted partial summary judgment to the defendants as to liability, but concluded that some of the project funding had indeed exceeded Congressional authorization. The decision is now on appeal.

Although no decision will be coming for a while, a number of recent events have returned the case to the public eye. In late January, several prominent, retired federal judges filed an amicus brief arguing that the courts should not charge any fees for public access to court records. That brief led to a story in the New Republic entitled “The Courts Are Making a Killing on Public Records.” All the while, the five-week federal government shutdown forced the courts to use up all of their “rainy day” resources and put them on the verge of operating without funding, illustrating the relative financial fragility of the courts as an organization.

I take as a given that the federal court system, as a whole, is committed to providing public access for all. But it is also a given that on an organizational level, the court system feels an obligation to protect its core activities from environmental disruption, including financial disruption. The current lawsuit provides an excellent illustration of the underlying tension between those values, and also suggests a solution. More below. Continue reading “The PACER class action and the problem of court funding”