California may allow judges to speak publicly about their decisions

The California Supreme Court is weighing a new ethics rule that would permit the state’s judges to speak publicly on any court ruling if it becomes an issue in an election or recall campaign. The San Diego Union-Tribune explains:

The move to amend the Judicial Code of Ethics would allow any judge, not just the jurist involved in a campaign, to comment on “the procedural, factual or legal basis of a decision about which the judge has been criticized during the election or recall campaign,” according to a draft of the proposed rule.

Historically, judges don’t comment on pending cases out of concern it could show a bias to one side or the other, impair the rights to a fair trial or influence how a case develops. The current ethics rules ban judges, and their staff, from making any comment on pending cases.

The decision is spurred by last year’s ugly and successful campaign to recall state judge Aaron Persky, whose extraordinarily light sentence of admitted rapist Brock Turner galvanized a movement to remove him from the bench. Existing ethics rules prevented Persky–or any other judge–from speaking about his decision.  If a new rule is implemented, it would go into effect on April 1.

Ugly campaign tactics in upstate New York judicial race

Law.com reports on a campaign mailer sent to residents of Sullivan County, New York, which accuses a Democratic judicial candidate of being a socialist and favoring the legalization of drugs. Her Republican opponent has taken full credit for the mailer, which was designed to look like a local newspaper. The accused candidate has denied the allegations of socialism and drug legalization, and has filed a complaint with the state broad of elections.

Judicial candidates acting injudiciously.

 

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.

(Even more) corruption of the judiciary in New York City

The New York Times periodically turns over the rock known as judicial selection in the Big Apple, and lo and behold, the nasty little critters underneath always seem to be thriving. This time it’s a story on corruption in the Bronx, where a Democratic party boss seems to have punished a local judge for refusing to hire his hand-picked crony as a “confidential assistant.”

What a colossal embarrassment. Why do New Yorkers tolerate this?

 

New Mexico Supreme Court invalidates change to judicial election cycle

The New Mexico Supreme Court has invalidated portions of a law, known as a “50 year tuneup,” which would have changed the timing of certain judicial elections in the state. The state already elects a governor and the President in the same election year, and the legislation would have placed at least some judicial elections in interceding cycles (2022, 2026, and so on). But the law was challenged by coalitions representing state judges, as well as several district attorneys and others elected officials whose terms would be immediately affected. The court concluded that changing the timing of elections could not be accomplished without a change to the state constitution.

The sponsors of the law called the problem “an honest mistake on our part,” and are working to change the effectuate the change through a constitutional amendment.

The most pointless judicial election ever?

One candidate was declared ineligible. The votes were counted anyway. But to what end?

A remarkable story from Alabama. Last fall, prosecutor Linda Hall won the Democratic primary for a seat on the Jefferson County Circuit Court located in Birmingham. But before the general election, her primary opponent challenged her victory, alleging that Hall did not meet the state’s requirement that judicial candidates live in the circuit for at least 12 months before the election.

The court agreed, and held that Hall was ineligible to run in the general election. But the ballots had already been printed, so the primary challenger was left out in the cold. Moreover, the court declared that the votes in the general election must still be counted. Despite her ineligiblity, Hall handily defeated the Republican incumbent, Teresa Pulliam, by 16,000 votes in November.

Unsurprisingly, Hall’s electoral victory brought a new round of litigation, this time by two Jefferson County voters who challenged Hall’s fulfillment of the residency requirement. In a trial in late 2018, Hall testified that over the previous 12 months she had lived in four different apartments in the Birmingham area, as well as a number of extended stay hotels in St. Louis, Missouri. Hall explained that she had to keep moving apartments due to problems with mold, foul odors, and smoking neighbors. By early October — just weeks before the general election — she landed in her final apartment, which was actually located within Jefferson County.

After trial, Hall was again declared ineligible for the judgeship, and enjoined from taking the oath of office. This past week, the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed that decision without opinion.

So, to recap: a judicial candidate who was declared ineligible for office before the general election was nevertheless elected, and later barred from taking office. Three different courts had to get involved. And at the end of the day, the people of Birmigham County had an unfilled judicial seat. (In another twist, Hall’s opponent, Judge Pulliam, was quickly appointed to a different seat on a criminal court. So losing an election evidently isn’t much of a career killer.)

I suspect that there is much more behind this story, at least as to the motivations of those charged with putting judges on the Alabama bench. It isn’t much of a surprise that Judge Pulliam, a Republican, would be reappointed to another seat by the state’s Republican governor. Likewise, I suspect that Ms. Hall’s electoral victory was a product of party and identity politics. Hall is an African-American woman running as a Democrat in a city that is more than 70% African-American and which regularly elects Democrats to office. It is well-established that many (perhaps most) judicial voters have little knowledge of the candidates before them, and accordingly look for low-salience cues like party affiliation, race, gender, or last name to aid their decisions. If the system worked well, voters would have recognized that a vote for Hall was meaningless. But they voted for her in droves.

It may well be that given Alabama’s dark history of racial inequality, a pure appointment process for judges may not create sufficient public trust in the judiciary. Allowing communities to choose their own judges through elections may therefore be a necessary accommodation. But if we are to put judicial candidates before the voters, at least those candidates should be minimally qualified, and at least the voters should be minimally discerning.