Thai judge shoots himself in open court in defense of judicial independence

The global media is starting to report on a horrific incident that took place in a Thai courtroom at the beginning of October. Judge Khanakorn Pianchana had just announced the acquittal of five criminal defendants accused of murder when he grabbed a handgun and shot himself in the chest. In a 25-page document explaining his actions, Judge Khanakorn claimed that he had been under political pressure from the ruling authorities to convict the defendants of murder, even though the evidence against the defendants was insufficient and obtained primarily through improper interrogation and detention measures.

Judge Khanakorn survived the shooting and is now recuperating from his injuries. But the incident has shaken Thailand. One issue is why he would take such a drastic step as to attempt suicide in the courtroom. Khanakorn himself explained that he could not ethically convict the suspects without adequate proof, but he knew his career would be destroyed if he exonerated them. Others, however, have postulated that Judge Khanakorn is suffering from extreme depression and related issues that prompted him to try to take his own life.

In any event, it is a stunning incident, and a sad moment for the judge and for the administration of justice.

 

The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

In retrospect, the contretemps at summer’s end between the District Attorney’s office and a municipal court judge in Boston looks like a case study on the importance of effective accountability mechanisms in a judicial system. The dispute between prosecutors and Judge Richard Sinnott arose following the arrest of counter-demonstrators during the Boston Straight Pride Parade. Sinnott refused to accept an entry of nolle prosequi – the abandonment of a charge – in respect to certain defendants accused of disorderly conduct, on the ground that doing so would violate a Massachusetts statute that protects victims’ rights. The judge also ordered that a defense attorney arguing in favor of accepting the nolle prosequi be handcuffed and removed from the courtroom.

In addition to attracting a great deal of media attention, Judge Sinnott’s actions came in the wake of both a failed effort to amend the method of judicial selection in Massachusetts, and the release of the Boston Bar Association report, “Judicial Independence: Promoting Justice and Maintaining Democracy,” which defended the Commonwealth’s system of judicial selection through gubernatorial appointment with approval by the governor’s council. The responses to Sinnott’s denial of the Commonwealth’s entry of nolle prosequi and detention of a defendant’s lawyer illustrate ways in which real accountability is possible without abandoning judicial tenure. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the working group that drafted the Boston Bar Association report).

The Massachusetts legislature rejected a recent proposal to amend the constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years, an initiative aimed at ensuring judicial accountability, according to one of the sponsors, for those judges who “make poor legal decisions.” The Boston Bar Association report, on the other hand, highlighted the existing mechanisms through which judges can be held accountable within the existing system. These mechanisms include the appellate process, an enforceable code of judicial conduct, and the promotion of transparency. Each of these mechanisms has worked in the case of Judge Sinnott.

Continue reading “The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts”

Poland’s new “Disciplinary Office” is another political threat to judges

The relentless threats to the Polish judiciary from the state’s ruling “Law and Justice” party have taken yet another distressing turn. Just Security reports on the state’s new Disciplinary Office for Common Court Judges, designed to control and punish individual judges who stand up for the rule of law. As the article notes:

Together with the politicization of the Disciplinary Chamber, the message is clear for all members of the judiciary: follow the party line or face the consequences. Indeed, there are early indicators that most of the disciplinary actions taken against judges so far have targeted judges who have been outspoken on issues of judicial independence and the rule of law.

Romania erupts with protests supporting judicial independence

Massive street protests erupted in the Romanian capital of Bucharest this weekend, after the country’s ruling Social Democrat party announced an emergency decree that would strip prosecutors of much of their power, and remove oversight of a prosecuting unit that investigates the judiciary. The party has alleged that the reforms are necessary to prevent “abuses” by the judiciary. Critics say the move is designed to intimidate judges and compromise judicial independence and the rule of law.

The country’s magistrates denounced the decree and staged their own protest on Friday, and the European Union has expressed “great concern” as well.

This has all the feel of the sham “reforms” put forth by Poland’s ruling party beginning in 2017. When any government undermines the rule of law, chaos is sure to follow.

The Importance of Being Chief Justice

I am delighted to present our first guest post, from my colleague Lawrence Friedman.

Successful lawyers excel at framing arguments. And for no lawyer in the United States is this skill more important than Chief Justice John Roberts. All of the justices of the Supreme Court seek to frame issues in ways that makes the results they reach seem inevitable. But only the chief justice speaks with the authority of his office outside the confines of the Court’s written opinions, opportunities that he seeks to maximize to ensure all of us that, regardless of how they rule in particular cases, the federal courts are just going about their business.

Consider two recent examples. The first is the chief justice’s response to President Trump’s belief that judges rule against his administration on the basis of politics. The chief justice would have none of it. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” he said. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

In each of these three sentences, Roberts essentially made the same point: federal judges are independent of politics and treat all who come before them equally. Note that Roberts did not dispute that federal judicial appointment process is political. Rather, he framed the issue in terms of what judges do after that process has ended.

The second example comes from the Chief Justice’s 2018 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. This annual update on the workload of the federal courts typically addresses a recent issue of note to the federal court system. All government reports should be so readable.

This year, the Chief Justice begins by recounting Justice Louis Brandeis’s effort, in 1928, to draft a dissent in Olmstead v. United States—an opinion that foreshadowed a doctrinal change nearly four decades later to the judicial understanding of the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections.

The Brandeis story captures the way in which the courts work – by reasoning their way to particular conclusions – and the nature of doctrinal change over time. And the story highlights the importance of judicial law clerks. Clerks are recently-graduated law students who assist the federal judiciary at all levels in resolving cases by providing research and drafting assistance.

But the story is not just about the importance of this resource to the judiciary. It also frames the Chief Justice’s report on the efforts of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group to determine the changes needed to judicial conduct codes to ensure that they adequately reflect concerns for confidentiality, mechanisms for reporting misconduct, and processes for investigating complaints.

As written, the report achieves its purpose. Members of Congress and the general public who take the time to read it are likely to be satisfied with the judiciary’s management of conduct issues and conclude there is no need for monitoring from outside. The judiciary, in other words, can take care of itself.

The point here is that, unlike his colleagues, Chief Justice Roberts must always keep an eye on the federal judiciary’s institutional reputation. The independence of the third branch is more fragile than that of the other departments of the federal government. The courts are possessed, as Alexander Hamilton famously put it, of neither the purse nor the sword. Congress, for example, controls not just the judiciary’s budget, but both the number of judges at every level and their jurisdiction.

We live in a time when the President of the United States regularly belittles the institutions of democracy, a time when serious proposals are being floated in the new House of Representatives to expand the number of Supreme Court justices to counter the perceived effect of recent appointments. Given his recent statements, the Chief Justice appears to be acutely aware that the federal judiciary’s independence, and popular respect for its rulings, turns on the extent to which the people believe that judges, once appointed, have no side to take in particular cases, and can keep their own house clean. If the pitched battles over Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment and partisan gerrymandering are any guide to the future, the chief has his work cut out for him.

Lawrence Friedman teaches constitutional law at New England Law | Boston and is the author, most recently, of Modern Constitutional Law.

National Constitution Center hosts program on Judicial Independence and the Federal Courts

The National Constitution Center has posted video of its entire program on Judicial Independence and the Federal Courts. It features an all-star group of panelists. I started watching a bit of the second panel (moderated by Jeffrey Rosen), and it is terrific. I will surely watch all three panels in short order. Highly recommended.

Venezuelan Supreme Court justice flees country, exposes Maduro regime

A second Venezuelan judge in the last fourteen months had fled the country, further exposing the Maduro regime’s efforts to exert total control over the state’s judiciary. Christian Zerpa, a former party loyalist who was recently appointed to the Venezuelan Supreme Court, surfaced in Florida after his defection and gave a taste of the regime’s interference with the judicial process.

Zerpa surfaced publicly in Miami on Sunday, describing how he received directions from the influential first lady Cilia Flores on how to rule in politically sensitive cases.

As a newly installed justice, he recounted being summoned to the court and told to sign off on a key ruling without first reviewing its details. It disqualified three elected representatives of Amazonas state from taking their seats in congress following the opposition’s sweep of legislative elections in 2015.

The key ruling cemented Maduro’s power, preventing the opposition from amassing a two-third super majority that would have severely curtailed Maduro’s power.

Zerpa apologized for propping up Maduro’s government as long as he did, saying that he feared being jailed as a dissident where his life would be put at risk.

“I will not be able to return to Venezuela,” Zerpa said. “I am a dead man.”