Roberts to Congress: Thanks, but we’ve got it all under control

For 2022, the Chief Justice leans into an alternative view of judicial independence. Will it be enough to keep Congress at bay?

Chief Justice Roberts’s 2021 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, dropped (as always) on New Years Eve, struck a more substantive and somewhat edgier tone than in years past. The Chief Justice identified three particular areas of focus for the Judicial Conference of the United States in the coming year: addressing financial disclosure and recusal obligations for federal judges, monitoring new mechanisms for reporting and stopping workplace harrassment, and preventing undue forum shopping in patent cases.

All three of these issues have been the subject of regular, and sometimes intense, Congressional scrutiny in recent years. But the Chief Justice’s report largely rejects the prospect of legislative fixes. Rather, consistent with the federal courts’ approach to the workplace harrassment scandal when it first broke in 2017, Roberts assures his readers that the Judicial Conference is willing and able to handle each of these issues internally. 

It’s not to see why the Chief Justice would go this route. As this blog has routinely described, the federal courts (like all courts, and indeed all organizations) operate under constant pressure from their external environments. Neoinstitutional theory identifies three types of pressure: coercive (the need to comply with legislation and other government mandates), mimetic (the need to be in line with similar institutions in order to maintain legitimacy), and normative (the need to adhere to social and professional norms). The federal courts face all three types of pressure, but are particularly susceptible to coercive and normative pressures. If the federal judiciary is not seen as ethical and apolitical, it will face Congressional action and lose legitimacy with the bar, the media, and the public. 

There is no question that the pressure has been turned up in recent weeks. The Wall Street Journal‘s expose on federal judges who failed to recuse from cases in which they held a financial stake was a significant blow to the judiciary, and has invited Congressional hearings. Some in Congress have used the scandal as an opportunity to resurrect additional transparency proposals, including courtroom cameras and free PACER access. And, of course, the progressive effort to pack the Supreme Court looms in the background, along with the ongoing politicization of judicial confirmation hearings and the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decisions on abortion and gun rights. It is fair to say that the federal courts are currently facing more external pressure and scrutiny than at any time since the 1960s. Continue reading “Roberts to Congress: Thanks, but we’ve got it all under control”

What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?

Everyone wants the same thing and Congress seems ready to act. So why is the court system trying to keep legislation at bay?

Recently, I have been diving back into organizational theory — a set of theoretical frameworks about how organizations operate which inspired the creation of this blog in 2017. I have been particularly curious about the extent to which the behavior of courts and court systems — as opposed to individual judges — can be explained by external pressures from the courts’ environment. Although much of organizational theory began as a way of explaining the behavior of private firms, it has been extended to the public sector, and I am now convinced that it can profitably explain a wide range of court system behaviors.

Take a very recent example: the Wall Street Journal investigation this month, which revealed that more than 130 federal judges had presided over cases involving companies in which they owned stock. Such financial conflicts clearly require recusal, and while many (perhaps most) of the judges who did notJudge_Jennifer_Walker_Elrod recuse gave plausible explanations that they had simply failed to keep tabs on their trades, the situation has been highly embarrassing for the federal judiciary. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said that the report was “troubling” and that it was “carefully reviewing the matter.” And this week, Fifth Circuit Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod appeared before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee to reaffirm that the federal courts “have taken and will continue to take action to ensure ethical obligations, including recusal and reporting requirements, are met.”

Such assurances may not be be enough for Congress. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both houses to tighten recusal and reporting requirements. The Senate bill would also require the AO to develop a publicly accessible, searchable online database of judges’ financial disclosures. The federal court system therefore finds itself scrambling to avoid a legislative mandate by showing that it is able to police its financial conflicts internally. Even then, it may not be able to stave off new legislation.

This may seem like ordinary damage control. But the court system’s specific behaviors to date, and range of possible responses going forward, can also be understood through the lens of an organizational theory known as neo-institutionalism. And that theory suggests that the court system’s response is very deliberate and very calculated. Continue reading “What is fueling the federal courts’ response to the judicial recusal crisis?”

More on California’s relaxed judicial ethics rules

I have a new post up at the IAALS blog that looks more deeply at the changes to California’s Code of Judicial Ethics, which permit judges to comment on pending cases in the context of a recall or retention election. Here’s a taste:

The amended rule allows judges who are under electoral attack to explain and contextualize their decisions to the voters directly. This is especially important for decisions rendered orally from the bench, which—like the rulings that ultimately felled Judges Corey and Persky—were not supplemented with a written account of the judge’s thought process. If a controversial decision was mandated or constrained by existing law, or by formal rules of evidence or procedure, the judge is now free to explain those circumstances to the public. A nuanced legal explanation will still struggle to compete for voter attention in comparison to a simple hashtag, but at least a judge will have some opportunity to advance his or her position directly.

At the same time, by inviting judicial comment on pending cases, the new rule places the overall integrity of the judiciary at greater risk. Traditional rules of judicial conduct prohibit judges from even approaching behavior that might be considered inappropriate for a neutral jurist. Judges, for example, are directed to avoid the appearance of impropriety, to disqualify themselves if there is anything above a de minimis personal interest in the outcome of a case, and to conduct extra-judicial activities so as to “minimize the risk of conflict with obligations of judicial office.” And, of course, judges are traditionally barred from discussing a pending case, lest they compromise the fairness of the proceeding. By consistently erring on the side of impartiality, judicial conduct rules avoid close calls and send a message that judicial integrity is of the utmost importance. The new rule blurs the line between appropriate and inappropriate judicial speech, and may have long-term erosive effects on public faith in the judiciary.

Please read the whole thing!

California approves plan to allow judges to comment on their own (and others’) decisions

The California Supreme Court has approved a change to its Code of Judicial Ethics, which would allow state judges to publicly comment on pending proceedings, including their own decisions and decisions of their colleagues. The most important change is to Canon 3B(9) and associated comments. The amended Canon now reads, in pertinent part:

In connection with a judicial election or recall campaign, this canon does not prohibit any judge from making a public comment about a pending proceeding, provided (a) the comment would not reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of the proceeding, and (b) the comment is about the procedural, factual, or legal basis of a decision about which a judge has been criticized during the election or recall campaign.

These changes have been in the works for some time, a reaction to the ugly 2018 campaign to recall state judge Aaron Persky. The sentiment is understandable, given that judges who produce unpopular decisions are sitting ducks in an election when they cannot even respond to unfair or oversimplified attacks by their antagonists. Permitting judges to at least clarify the context of their decisions, or to comment on the overall qualifications of a fellow judge whose career is being reduced to a single decision, may prevent voters from removing a judge rashly.

But there is still reason to be worried about whether this change will work for the better. Now that judges are permitted to comment on pending proceedings, they have less of an excuse to not comment when pressed by the media or an election opponent. Some judges might feel pressure to comment even when they do not want to do so. Others might choose not to comment and find themselves under pressure to justify that decision. Put differently, in some ways the original canon was cleaner because judges had no choice but to remain silent. Now they have more freedom, and that can be a blessing and a curse.

The new rules go into effect July 1. It will be a development worth watching.

 

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”

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.

More on the Supreme Court’s opacity

Perhaps building on Fix the Court’s announcement of its transparency report cards for the federal courts (the timing seems more than coincidental), the Associated Press has a story describing the areas about which the Supreme Court steadfastly declines to provide basic information about its operations to the public. Some of the examples are silly but illustrative, like refuses to name the company that installed the Court’s new drapes. Others are more serious, like the lack of courtroom cameras and limited details about judicial travel and recusal.

As I noted in a recent post, the right level of court system transparency is that which is calculated to assure the public that the courts are operating in a trustworthy manner. If the Court were more transparent about its most basic operations, it would be in a better position to justify those areas in which secrecy was truly warranted.

New bill would increase disclosures regarding federal judicial travel

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced a new bill in the Senate, dubbed the Judicial Travel Accountability Act. (It has not yet received a number.) The bill would increase the financial disclosures put on federal judges regarding their travel. Bloomberg Law reports:

The Ethics in Government Act requires that judges’ disclosures include only the identity of the source and a brief description of reimbursements over $390. But judges don’t have to identify the dollar value of the reimbursement, and are exempted entirely from reporting any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality,” Whitehouse said in a news release.

The Judicial Travel Accountability Act would require “judicial officers’” financial disclosure statements to include the dollar amount of transportation, lodging, and meal expense reimbursements and gifts, as well as a detailed description of any meetings and events attended.

The bill calls for disclosures to be filed within 15 days of a trip and to be made available on a public website. The Supreme Court doesn’t post its financial disclosures online and they are made available only once a year

In an ordinary political cycle, it would be easier to see this is as a truly bipartisan effort to promote public confidence in the judiciary, akin perhaps to the regularly introduced “Sunshine in the Courtroom” Acts that seek to bring cameras and other transparency mechanisms into the courthouse. But this is not an ordinary political cycle, and it is hard to see this bill as anything other than a political ploy. Start with Senator Whitehouse, whose public treatment of the Supreme Court has become increasingly unhinged as of late, and who chose to begin his remarks with a focus on the Supreme Court even though its Justices represent less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire federal judiciary. Then there is the list of co-sponsors: 12 Democrats (including two current presidential hopefuls) and only one Republican. It’s not difficult to see this bill as primarily an effort to turn the courts into a political football once again.

It is a dangerous thing when politicians drag the court system into their partisan squabbles, and it is in my view a significant reason why the public increasingly sees the courts as political. But while the federal courts cannot stop Congress from introducing pointed legislation, it can render such legislative chicanery moot by adopting its own reporting practices. Put differently, if the court system itself required judges to report more fully their travel junkets, rather than waiting for Congress to mandate it, courts would reap the benefits of increased public confidence and would not find themselves dragged into the political muck. More on this point in a future post.

(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?

 

Supreme Judicial Court reverses course on suspension of Judge Joseph

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

The tensions between state and federal authorities resulting from the Trump administration’s immigration policies are evident in debates over a proposed southern border wall, sanctuary cities and, in Massachusetts, the indictment of District Court Judge Shelley M. Joseph on obstruction of justice charges. An April 25, 2019 grand jury indictment alleges misconduct in her courtroom involving Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials and immigrants who had been held in state custody. While the federal criminal process moves forward in the wake of Joseph’s not-guilty plea, the federalism and state sovereignty issues have featured in a separate proceeding concerning her initial suspension without pay by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in an order issued the same day as the grand jury indictment.

The SJC based its initial order “solely on the fact that [Judge Joseph] had been indicted for alleged misconduct in the performance of her judicial duties.” Joseph subsequently sought partial reconsideration, arguing that she should be suspended with pay, rather than without; and that she should be suspended only from her judicial duties. Following a nonevidentiary hearing, the SJC issued a revised order on August 13: a majority of the justices concluded that suspension with pay was appropriate in the unique circumstances of the case, and denied Joseph’s request to be assigned administrative duties.

The court was right to grant reconsideration and reverse course on the question whether Joseph should be paid during her suspension. It initially imposed suspension without pay absent any inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the federal indictment, relying for guidance on precedent as well as the Massachusetts Trial Court personnel policy and state statutes. Past suspensions notably had been imposed following findings indicating circumstances in which discipline was appropriate. As for the Trial Court policy, it provides that “[a]n employee who is indicted for misconduct in office … shall be suspended without pay until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings,” while Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30, Section 59, and Chapter 268A, Section 25 authorize the suspension of state officers and employees during any period they are under indictment for misconduct. These rules, as the SJC observed in Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Retirement Board, serve “to remedy the untenable situation which arises when a person who has been indicted for misconduct in office continues to perform his [or her] public duties while awaiting trial.”

Notwithstanding the laudable aim of the rules, their automatic application to a judge may be problematic—particularly when the criminal allegations involve conduct in the courtroom, as opposed to actions outside the scope of the judicial function. Here, the SJC’s initial reliance on the mere fact of the indictment as a basis for suspending Joseph obscured a legitimate concern about prosecutorial intrusion into a trial judge’s authority to control her own courtroom. That a federal prosecutor sought the indictment, moreover, potentially raises federalism and separation of powers issues. In these circumstances, some kind of pre-suspension inquiry was warranted—an inquiry that the SJC ultimately made through the hearing on Joseph’s reconsideration motion, aided by the briefs of the parties and amici on the question of whether her suspension should be with or without pay.

No doubt, the SJC’s decision to reconsider the terms of Judge Joseph’s suspension will offend many Massachusetts citizens; as Justice Frank Graziano argued in his dissent, they will see the court as according a judge special treatment by restoring her pay. But, as the concurring justices noted, the decision to suspend Joseph without pay effectively denied her the ability to mount a defense to the criminal charge against her—a charge that may well implicate both judicial independence and the sovereign authority of the state judiciary itself. By ordering suspension with pay, the SJC has given Joseph the ability to mount a vigorous defense—in the knowledge that her trial may well test the extent to which state and federal law enforcement officials can act in spaces that traditionally have been seen as beyond their reach.