Nevada Supreme Court seeks substantial pay hikes for state judges

The proposed legislation would increase all judicial salaries by $30,000/year, with additional automatic increases beginning in 2027. Interestingly, the bill came from the supreme court itself, as Nevada permits government entities other than the legislature to propose legislation.

West Virginia will again consider adding an intermediate court of appeals

West Virginia is one of the few states that has no intermediate appellate court, meaning that its state supreme court faces a more congested, mandatory docket. Lawmakers have periodically proposed adding a new court, but without success.

The effort has begun again: the West Virginia Appellate Reorganization Act was introduced in the state’s senate judiciary committee this week.

Intermediate appellate courts cost money and demand infrastructure, but they also make a lot of sense from the standpoint of the administration of justice. Some lawmakers are optimistic that this will be the year.

More fallout from the Solar Winds hack

After last month’s revelation that the federal court system was among the victims of the Solar Winds cyberhack, leaving thousands of sensitive documents in the hands of Russian hackers, members of Congress are now demanding answers about the extent of the fallout. As one story notes:

Senators Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse, Amy Klobuchar, Chris Coons, Mazie Hirono, and Cory Booker all signed on to a letter to the chief information officer at the Department of Justice and associate director of the administrative office of the U.S. Courts on Jan. 20 demanding a hearing on the changes and the potential access of court documents by the hackers.

“We are alarmed at the potential large-scale breach of sensitive and confident records and communications held by the DOJ and AO, and write to urgently request information about the impact and the steps being taken to mitigate the threat of this intrusion,” the senators wrote.

It’s not immediately clear to me why all of the signatories are Democratic senators. Perhaps it’s more pointless partisanship from a deeply dysfunctional Senate Judiciary Committee. But cybersecurity for the courts should be a bipartisan concern, and one can only hope that it will be treated as such.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has alraedy announced a plan to maintain sensitive filings on paper for the foreseeable future. We’ll see what develops in the coming weeks.

 

What should we expect of Biden when it comes to the judiciary?

The new administration is borrowing from Trump’s playbook, not Obama’s.

Three weeks into the Biden administration, the new President’s approach to the judicial branch is coming into focus. It looks a lot like that of his immediate predecessor, with a heavy focus on appointing federal judges and advancing court-related policies that satisfy the ruling party’s ideological litmus test.

Biden entered the White House with only 46 vacancies on the federal bench, and several pending nominations remaining from Trump’s final weeks. But when the runoff elections in Georgia produced a 50-50 Senate and the ability of Vice President Harris to serve as a tiebreaker, the calculus on judicial appointments changed. The White House rescinded all of the pending Trump-era nominations and put out a call for its own nominees. More conspicuously, progressive activists and academics began urging older federal judges to take senior status, a designation which would keep them on the bench with a reduced caseload, but which (more importantly) would open additional vacancies at the district court and circuit court level.

Biden last week also rejected any formal role for the American Bar Association in pre-vetting federal judicial nominees, a stunning move for a Democratic President. The ABA’s process focuses on a nominee’s ideologically neutral qualifications, like experience and temperament. For generations, its ratings of nominees has served as an additional quality check — and since most nominees are deemed qualified or well-qualified, an additional stamp of approval that can help with Senate confirmation. When Donald Trump rejected the ABA’s vetting role in early 2017, I described the action as an “unforced error.” And indeed, it was — the ABA continued to vet the nominees even without the President’s blessing, and identified a handful of candidates who were plainly unqualified for the federal bench. Rejecting the ABA four years ago opened the door for criticism that Trump’s nominations were based more on ideology than skill and competence; rejecting it now will open the identical door for Biden. Continue reading “What should we expect of Biden when it comes to the judiciary?”

West Virginia governor will appoint the judge who will rule in his case

A strange development in West Virginia. State judge Charles King passed away last month, and Governor Jim Justice is charged with appointing his replacement. Interviews will be taking place this week. At the time of his death, Judge King was presiding over a lawsuit in which the Governor was the defendant. The new appointee will take the reins of that suit. Put differently, the Governor will literally be picking the judge in his own case.

While it is common for governors to temporarily fill vacant seats on the bench so that the courts remain at full strength, this situation is plainly awkward. It is all the more so because of the efforts in the mid-2000s of Massey Coal Company to heavily finance the election of Brent Benjamin to the state supreme court; Benjamin would later cast the deciding vote in Massey’s favor in a major case pending before that court.

Governor Justice must carry out his appointment responsibilities, but he would be well-served by including extra transparency in the process — for his sake, the new judge’s sake, and the sake of long-term public confidence in the state judiciary.

Another voice against court packing

With the Biden Administration announcing the formation of a committee to explore reforms to the Supreme Court—including the possibility of adding seats—Democratic political consultant Douglas Schoen offers several words of caution in The Hill for would-be court packers. The key grafs:

Even if Democrats can get rid of the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court on a party line vote would tarnish judicial credibility and would reduce the institution to a partisan tool. Moreover, it would trigger an endless cycle of revenge politics, as each successive party in control would be motivated to add justices to restructure ideological balance on the bench.

The backlash of packing the Supreme Court would be considerable for Democrats, as this move is unpopular with voters. After the confirmation of Barrett, a national survey had found that, by 47 percent to 34 percent, voters think Democrats should refrain from altering the Supreme Court. But most Democrats do want party leaders to add more justices.

So packing the Supreme Court would damage the chances for Biden of achieving his elusive goal of unifying both parties. This would send the message that he is instead interested in fueling the current climate of partisan politics, rather than trying to fix it. It would not only harm his legacy, but would also likely prevent him from being able to pass any meaningful or comprehensive bipartisan legislation in office.

Schoen focuses primarily on the political damage that would be wreaked by court-packing, but the institutional damage to the judiciary would be just as significant. It would dramatically undermine public confidence in the Court through no fault of its own.

Institutions are fragile things. They take generations to build and imbue with legitimacy and confidence, but far less time to destroy. With so many of our political, religious, cultural, and civic institutions already under attack, we should refrain now from opening another wholly unnecessary front.

More on the Pennsylvania plan to create partisan judicial elections by district

I was pleased to weigh in this week on the proposed Pennsylvania legislation that would shift partisan elections for its state supreme court from a statewide ballot to a regional one. (More on the proposal here and here.) As the Spotlight PA article suggests, my concern is not with creating geographic districts, but rather with the potentially explosive mix of districts and partisan races. That combination seems to me to especially invite special interest and dark money, similar to the notorious 2004 supreme court election in Illinois.

Interestingly enough, South Carolina is also considering a move to expand and diversity the geographic perspective of its supreme court, which is chosen entirely by the legislature. We’ll continue to follow both proposals here.

Chief Justice will not preside over second Trump impeachment trial

Instead, it will be Senator Patrick Leahy in his capacity as president pro tempore of the Senate.

Historically, is not uncommon for officials other than the Chief Justice to preside over impeachment trials. But it remains unclear why Roberts will not be presiding in this instance. Did he subtly send signals that he was not interested? Was he trying to avoid a potential recusal should the trial result be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court? Was he never asked to preside?

Some interesting thoughts from Gerard Magliocca here and Ann Althouse here.

A new day and a plea for unity

The Dean of my law school, Scott Brown, has an op-ed up at The Hill calling for unity as the United States inaugurates Joe Biden as its 46th President. It’s an important message. Over the past decade-plus, Americans’ disagreements over policies and protocols have devolved into distrust and outright demonization of their neighbors and countrymen. It is a depressing and dangerous condition, but it is reversible.

I am not naive enough to think that unity will be achieved simply with a change in administration. Donald Trump was a symptom of our dysfunction, not a cause of it. But Inauguration Day provides an excellent opportunity for us to look at ourselves and ask what we really want to be. I hope for an America where people do differ on policies and conceptions of the good life, where we are squabbling and passionate and relentless about our convictions, but also where fealty to the core values of our country — among them free speech, due process, equal protection, and respect for the rule of law — provides the unshakeable foundation for good faith arguments about our future.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have sometimes been hard on Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I will continue to do so when I disagree with their policies and actions. But I will also give them credit whenever it is merited, and I will always wish them well. They are now steering a ship of 330 million people, and it is in the interest of the country — indeed, the entire world — that they succeed. May they find that success today and in the coming years.

John J. Parker’s failed Supreme Court nomination

Columnist Ray Hill at The Knoxville Focus has been running an interesting multi-part series on the nomination of Judge John J. Parker to the Supreme Court in 1930. Judge Parker, who was serving on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, would narrowly lose his confirmation vote due to the complex political alignments of the era. He would continue to serve on the Fourth Circuit until his death in 1958.

Parker has long been an interesting character from the perspective of federal court organization and administration. A politician before he began his judicial career, Parker was very closely tied to the leadership of the American Bar Association, and was one of the principal architects of the “Queen Mary Compromise” which created the modern Judicial Conference of the United States. (Interested readers can learn more here.)

Ray Hill’s pieces paint a vivid history of the Parker nomination, from the surprise opening on the Court occasioned by Justice Edward Sanford’s untimely death (after a routine dental appointment), to the rift within the Republican Party, to the shifting political demographics of the South. Although all four parts collectively feel repetitive at times, it’s a valuable overview of a fascinating moment in history.

The four parts of the series can be found here, here, here, and here.