Federal courts ask Congress for coronavirus assistance

The federal judiciary has asked Congress for $36.6 million in supplemental funding to work through the coronavirus pandemic. The money would be used for cleaning courthouses, enhanced medical screening, information technology updates, and other IT infrastructure, among other things. The judiciary is also seeking new legislation to toll certain bankruptcy deadlines, add new temporary judgeships, and protect litigants and detainees from unnecessary coronavirus exposure.

The letter setting out the requests is here.

Judicial Conference authorizes federal courts to hold certain criminal proceedings electronically

Last week, Congress passed the CARES Act, which most notably was designed to give a push to the American economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Nestled within that Act was a provision that permitted the Judicial Conference of the United States to determine that “emergency conditions due to the national emergency declared by the President with respect to COVID-19 will materially affect the functioning of the federal courts generally.” Such a finding would then permit chief judges of individual federal district courts to temporarily authorize videoconferences or teleconferences in certain criminal proceedings, solely in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The Judicial Conference made that authorization on Sunday, leaving it now to individual districts to determine whether to implement videoconferencing. It is worth noting that the legislation (which was passed with significant input from the Judicial Conference) is relatively narrow, and applies only to the current COVID-19 emergency. Moreover, the general authorization applies only to certain types of criminal proceedings: in particular, no felony plea or sentencing could be done by video- or teleconference unless the district court makes additional findings that such proceedings (1) cannot be done in person “without seriously jeopardizing public health and safety”, and (2) that “there are specific reasons that the plea or sentencing in that case cannot be further delayed without serious harm to the interests of justice.”

This is an entirely practical step, representing collaboration between Congress and the courts to protect the efficient operation of the criminal justice system. Whether it will open the door for further use of videoconferencing in non-emergency situations, however, is very much unsettled. And the current legislation has drawn criticism in some circles that it reduces much-needed transparency in criminal justice.

New York judge calls for reform to state bail law

Earlier this year, New York State’s poorly thought-out bail reform law formally went into effect. (New York City courts began implementing it even earlier under the directive of Mayor Bill de Blasio.) The law requires state judges to release criminal defendants without bail except in the most egregious cases. While the law was intended to address perverse effects of existing bail laws on minority communities, it backfired spectacularly from the very start. In December, a woman accused of an anti-Semitic attack on the streets of New York City was released even after admitting her deed; she was involved in another criminal incident less than 24 hours later (and eventually was charged with federal crimes for which bail is required). She was not alone: many stories have identified criminal defendants who were released without bail despite being charged with violent crimes; some of the defendants have even expressed their own surprise at being released. Both de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who initially championed the legislation, have publicly announced that they have had second thoughts.

The law is deeply problematic because it denies state judges a role fundamental to their jobs: the discretion to determine the conditions under which a criminal defendant should be released. Now some judges are speaking out against it themselves. At a recent forum, Bronx Criminal Court Judge George Grasso called for immediate efforts to change the law:

Grasso, a former deputy police commissioner, acknowledged the deep racial and income disparities that informed the push to overhaul the bail law, but said state lawmakers should amend the measure to allow for judicial discretion in setting bail and remanding defendants considered dangerous.

“The scope of removal of judicial discretion on bail matters in this reform package is breathtaking,” Grasso said in prepared remarks. “New York State is the only state in the United States that does not let judges consider ‘dangerousness,’ but instead resorts to twisted logic.”

“We should stop the charade now,” he continued. “It is my opinion that without significant changes, the current legislation will not only be a missed opportunity for long overdue criminal justice reform, but also a significant threat to public safety.”

This is a noteworthy development. Judges typically do not speak publicly on the state of the law, even laws that directly affect the administration of courts and the justice system. Offering a personal opinion on the validity or effectiveness of a law opens a judge to charges of bias or partiality. So it takes a real crisis for judges to feel the need to speak out so publicly.

And Judge Grasso is right. Whatever its original intent, the new law ties the hands of the courts, makes New Yorkers less safe, and reduces public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Two states aim to reorganize court structure to promote efficiency and fairness

Separate stories this week show how two state governments are working to reconfigure their court systems in response to growing dockets and concerns about cost, efficiency, and fairness.

In Colorado, a bill to create a new judicial district passed through the House Judiciary Committee. The proposal would split rapidly growing Arapahoe County off from the rest of the 18th Judicial District in order to better (and more fairly) allocate resources among the four counties that currently comprise the district. Arapahoe County has seen a recent spike in criminal prosecutions and especially murder trials (a depressing fact for this former Coloradan), and the growing criminal docket led many to believe that placing it in its own new judicial district would be BBC a better use of resources. The bill has broad support. If passed, it would go into effect in 2025.

In New York, the court system itself is taking the initiative to improve its efficiency and administration. This article by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks points out that consolidating the state’s Byzantine court system (which currently has 11 different trial courts) would save litigants and the public hundreds of millions of dollars every year. As in Colorado, the proposal has strong support but would need legislative sign off.

These are nice examples of interbranch cooperation for the benefit of local residents and taxpayers. More like this, please.

In a widely criticized move, New York Governor prevents Trump-appointed judges from performing weddings

The New York Post reports on the move here. This is really sad and petty, designed only to make an ill-advised political point.

In New York, all state judges are allowed to perform weddings, as well as all legislators and the governor himself. A new law would have extended that power to all federal judges in the state, and passed overwhelmingly in the state legislature. Read the whole thing to see the criticism of the move coming from all sides.

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.