On the politics of judicial identity

Two recent stories illustrate the slippery role that stereotypes and identity politics play in state judicial elections. In Louisiana, judicial candidate Ron Johnson appeared in campaign ads wearing his twin brother’s judicial robe and calling himself “Judge Johnson.” (His brother is a sitting judge.) Johnson admitted his mistake and accepted responsibility for it, but the intent was clearly to send the message that he was an incumbent judge — and probably to take advantage of the professional goodwill his brother had already amassed on the bench.

Elsewhere, Caroline Cohen defeated three other candidates for a seat on the civil court bench in Brooklyn’s 6th judicial district last Tuesday. But one of her opponents, Tehilah Berman, charges that Cohen — nee Caroline Piela — took her husband’s identifiably Jewish last name shortly before the election in order to attract Orthodox Jewish voters in the district. Cohen apparently also ran ads in Jewish publications with the Biblical injunction “Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” Berman, who finished last in the race, claims that Cohen deliberately presented herself as a devout Jew in order to draw in votes.

We have seen sketchy campaign behavior before, including judicial candidates cynically manipulating their names for electoral gain. Last year, an even more egregious example was set when Chicago lawyer Phillip Spiwack named changed his name to Shannon O’Malley on the theory that a female, Irish name would make him a shoo-in with Cook County voters. Sadly, it worked. In another recent incident, a Nevada judge seeking reelection photoshopped Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson alongside her in a print ad, even though he had never endorsed her candidacy.

But seeing these two most recent incidents side by side was particularly striking, because they both undermine public confidence in the judiciary, but in opposite directions. Ron Johnson’s impersonation of a sitting judge preyed on the positive stereotypes that voters associate with the judicial robe. As I explain in part here, citizens associate the generic judge with a high level of impartiality, dignity, and inherent sense of fairness.  When a judicial candidate dons the robe and is later found to have acted unethically, positive associations with the robe and the judiciary go down.

Caroline Cohen’s name switch (occurring as it did months before the election, and after 13 years of marriage) was arguably even worse, as it sought to take advantage of the modern identity politics that have been sown so dismayingly at the national level. Cohen was banking on Orthodox Jewish voters choosing “one of their own” at the polls, having done no other homework on the candidates or their qualities and qualifications. She turns out to have been correct in that assumption (and indeed, similar behavior has been recorded in various parts of the country for decades), but at what cost? The entire episode moves public beliefs about the judiciary away from the ideals of neutrality, experience, and competence, and closer to the cynical wisdom of “she is one of ‘my’ people, and will put a finger on the scale for me if I ever need it.”

Modern politicians use identity politics divisively to create natural voter bases, and to later whip those bases into a froth with perceived slights against their group. The whole premise is degrading, dehumanizing, and de-democratizing, albeit an effective tool in our troubled times for the small-minded politician. Judges and judicial candidates, however, can never afford to peddle in the cramped and dark politics of identity. In doing so, they give away their greatest assets: the promise of equal justice for all.

Another major conflict of interest in Brooklyn’s judicial elections

The chicanery surrounding judicial elections in New York City, and especially Brooklyn, will come as no surprise to longtime readers of this blog. But here we go again:

Brooklyn lawyers who decide who can get the crucial Democratic ballot line to run for prized judicial seats are getting jobs as legal guardians and referees from the very judges they’re charged with reviewing — and their law firms are appearing before those same judges in active cases.

Of the 25 attorneys listed as serving on the Brooklyn Democratic Party’s judicial screening panel in 2019, at least five have been given jobs as court-appointed lawyers by the judges they’re tasked with reviewing, the Daily News has learned.

Previous coverage of the Brooklyn’s high quality approach to selecting judges here, here, here, here, here, and here.

On federal laws and state courthouses

By now,  many readers may be familiar with the growing tensions between states and the federal government over the Trump Administration policy of arresting illegal immigrants outside (and inside) state courthouses. The issue has been brewing for some time, and came to a head in Massachusetts this week when a state court judge and court officer were themselves arrested by federal authorities for helping Jose Medina-Perez, an illegal immigrant in their courtroom on drug charges, evade imminent arrest by an ICE agent by spiriting him out the back door of the courthouse.

Yesterday, in what they maintain is merely a coincidence of timing, two Massachusetts District Attorneys filed a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking to enjoin ICE from making any further arrests in state courthouses.

My former law school classmate Ted Folkman has an excellent rundown of the events and a sensible take on it at Letters Blogatory.  He writes:

My best understanding of the law is that the immigration agent had the right to seek to detain Medina-Perez in the courtroom and that the judge probably shouldn’t have put obstacles (or perhaps “obstructions”) in his way, though I do not want to offer an opinion about whether the judge’s conduct satisfies the elements of the criminal statutes without studying them. Again, we want to think back to another era and the contexts in which states sought to thwart federal law enforcement, and not make a legal rule based just on the sympathies of the moment. But that said, I also think it’s a terrible idea to send immigration agents to courthouses in the first place to arrest people, because it discourages people from attending court and is contrary to efforts to increase access to justice. And I find it hard to see why the federal government thinks the answer is to charge the judge criminally rather than for the Massachusetts court to exercise self-governance.

Two points here deserve elaboration. First, the federal policy is a terrible thing for the operation of state courts and their users. It represents a clear intrusion by a separate sovereign that threatens to disrupt state court proceedings. More importantly, the fear of arrest by ICE agents is sure to dissuade people from coming to court when it is necessary that they do so. The administration of justice will suffer as victims and key witnesses don’t show up for hearings and trials. Claims of domestic violence, child custody, landlord-tenant relations, personal injuries, and a variety of other issues either will not be brought at all, or will lead to default judgments when the defendants fail to appear. If the American tradition of due process means anything, it is that even those who are not citizens — even those who are not here legally — deserve a fair day in court.

At the same time, state courts and state judges are simply not free to ignore federal law and policy with which they disagree. American history is rife with examples of states unacceptably undermining federal law through the operation of their own court systems. Again, if due process means anything, it is that the law must be fairly applied in every venue, regardless of (as Ted puts it) “the sympathies of the moment.” And the charges against the Massachusetts judge, if proven, are quite damning: she allegedly closed her courtroom to the ICE agent, turned off the electronic recording system, and snuck a federal fugitive out the back door of the courthouse. Regardless of how you come down on the morality of her action, her alleged behavior was remarkably unjudicial.

Put differently — we have courts of law, not courts of justice. There are established procedures in place to stop harmful conduct. The lawsuit discussed above is one such procedure; taking the law into your own hands while wearing the robe is not. Whether or not one sympathizes with the intent of the state judge here, her alleged activities have surely damaged the integrity of the state judiciary.

 

Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook

William “Bill” McLeod, a well-respected Houston-area trial judge, was contemplating running for the Texas Supreme Court in the 2020 general election. Earlier this month, he stated as much on his Facebook page, unaware that such a declaration triggered an automatic resignation from his current position under Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution.

Harris and his supporters appealed the automatic removal, but this week Harris County commissioners voted 4-1 to uphold the resignation. It appears to have been a difficult decision, given that McLeod was a popular and experienced judge who won a sizable majority in the last election.

Still, there were important countervailing considerations: Continue reading “Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook”

Tweeting judges: a cautionary tale

A little over a year ago, I took a close look at the phenomenon of judges using Twitter. After examining the professional and ethical responsibilities of the judiciary, I concluded that “judges should not be afraid of using Twitter, as long as they employ it appropriately and with discretion.”

That conclusion still holds, and most judges who are regular Twitter users find a way to make it work without compromising their judicial roles.  But Twitter is still a dangerous medium, as Kansas judge Jeffry Jack is learning this week. Judge Jack, currently a Labette County trial judge, has been nominated by Governor Laura Kelly to the state’s Court of Appeals. But his nomination has run into strong opposition from state lawmakers, after they discovered a number of profane and inflammatory tweets from his account, many of which were directed to President Trump and other prominent conservatives.

To be sure, some Republican lawmakers were already predisposed to vote against Jack’s nomination, based on purely partisan factors such as his apparent support for gun control and the Affordable Care Act. But even Democratic legislators were taken aback by the ferocity and crudeness of Jack’s tweets:

Sen. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat who attended a Friday news conference where Kelly nominated Jack, said some of the tweets do not demonstrate a proper judicial temperament.

“If these are genuine, I find them to be deeply troubling coming from a sitting judge,” Miller said.

Exactly. Judges, like all people, are entitled to their political views, and there is nothing wrong with holding those views very strongly. But the judiciary depends on its members displaying an even-handed temperament and maintaining a high level of professional behavior even in their personal lives. Judge Jack’s tweets do not display that temperament, and they raise questions not only about his fitness for an appellate court position, but also for maintaining his current trial job.

Yesterday, Governor Kelly withdrew Jack’s nomination. But don’t be surprised if his tweets become an issue if seeks to retain his trial seat when his current term ends in 2020.

This posted was edited on March 20 to correct the spelling of Judge Jack’s name.

A call for better ethics training for New York’s town and village justices

The practices of New York State’s “village justices” have long been the subject of deep concern. These judges are empowered to hear a variety of low-stakes cases at the local level. But most lack any legal training, resulting in poor practices, questionable procedures, and misapplications of the law.

Perhaps this type of local magistrate made sense in the nineteenth century, when it was necessary to have a judicial figure in each town or village to address on-the-spot legal disputes. But the continued practice raises a variety of significant, ongoing ethics concerns.

In 2006, the New York Times published an expose on the questionable practices of village justices, finding examples of judicial intimidation, open racism, jailing defendants capriciously and without bail, and willful ignorance of applicable law.

Not much happened in response. But this week, the issue roared back once again. New York State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct published a report emphasizing (perhaps unsurprisingly) that the most frequent and common ethical lapses in the state judiciary are committed by town and village justices who lack legal training. Examples of such lapses include posting case details on social media, and failing to create a record of any court proceedings for eight years.

There are currently no plans to change the system. No surprise there, either.

Judicial reforms introduced in West Virginia

In the wake of several scandals that rocked its supreme court and led to a number of impeachments, West Virginia has introduced a series of reforms to improve public confidence in its judiciary. This week, Chief Justice Beth Walker updated the state legislature on the court’s internal reforms, including new travel and financial policies to combat the budgetary abuse that was endemic in the court until just a few months ago.

Separately, the state’s Judicial Investigation Commission has asked candidates in judicial elections to call on third parties to stop running false or misleading ads against their opponents, and to disavow any false or misleading statements that are made. While this opinion will be difficult to enforce–especially in a tightly-contested race–it would be refreshing for candidates to commit to it. There is little benefit to winning a judicial election, only to see public confidence plummet in the judiciary because the candidates are being routinely trashed on TV.