CBO puts $43 million price tag on federal courtroom cameras

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has issued its estimate of the cost for implementing S. 818, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2021. That bill would authorize federal judges to record and broadcast court proceedings as long as doing so would not violate the parties’ due process rights. The authorization would last for three years.

Recognizing that the vast majority of federal judges would likely decline the bill’s invitation to record proceedings, the CBO estimates that only 10% of courtrooms nationwide (about 200 courtrooms total) would be fitted with modern video equipment. Still, the CBO expects that it will cost about $75,000 to set up each courtroom, and another $50,000 annually to administer the program. In all, a rough estimate of $43 million would have to be expended between now and 2026, when the program would automatically sunset.

Forty-three million dollars is a staggering number to most people, especially since ordinary video recording technology is now relatively cheap and accessible. To be sure, there are security and privacy issues, but wow, that’s a lot of money for a program that doesn’t even have staying power.*

* Of course, the federal government once spent $100 million on unused plane tickets in a six-year stretch, so your perceptions may vary.

New Mexico advances legislation to criminalize threats against state judges

The New Mexico House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation that would impose criminal penalties on anyone who threatens a judge or the judge’s family members. The bill, which passed the House by a vote of 59-7, now heads to the state senate.

The proposed law would make it a misdemeanor to “doxx” any judge by sharing his or her personal information. Under the same law, it would be a fourth-degree felony to threaten a judge or the judge’s family with the intent of causing fear of great harm, disrupting the judge’s official duties, or retaliating for work done in court.

Some House members expressed concern that the bill criminalizes free speech. I am sympathetic to the concern that political speech be open, but the issue here is altogether different. Every ordered society limits the permissibility of threatening language. Here, threat to judges place a substantial risk of undermining the efficacy and legitimacy of the judicial system. Judges are prepared to have people upset with their decisions, but it is altogether different to ask them to serve when they are physically threatened.

We have seen too much of this behavior in recent years, including the recent threats to the young children of the judge in the Kyle Rittenhouse criminal trial. Criminalizing such malfeasance is long overdue.

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?”

Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court

Republican officials in Montana, who declared open season on their own judicial system earlier this year, fired a new salvo at the courts late last week. State Attorney General Austin Knudsen requested that the entire state supreme court recuse itself in a case involving a legislative subpoena of internal court documents.

In March, Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law a bill that would eliminate the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission, and allow the governor to fill judicial vacancies directly. Several weeks ago, the Republican legislature issued a subpoena to the state court administrator, seeking internal emails and other court documents (Including an internal poll) in which state trial judges allegedly expressed opinions on the constitutionality of that legislation. The court administrator asked the state supreme court to quash the subpoena, and Chief Justice Mike McGrath recused himself from that determination because he had lobbied the governor not to sign the bill. The remaining six members of the state supreme court quashed those subpoena in mid-April, pending a further hearing.

The AG now asserts that all members of the supreme court are directly conflicted from participating in any future hearing on the issue, because they would be ruling on access to their own internal documents. The justices’ continued participation in the case constitutes, in the AG’s words, “not merely the appearance of impropriety. This is actual impropriety.”

At first glance, state Republicans have laid a trap for the judiciary worthy of a cartoon villain. If the remaining justices recuse in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the Republicans will challenge any replacement judges on same grounds until they find judges that they feel will rule in their favor. On the other hand, if the justices decline to recuse themselves, they will face continued allegations of bias and impropriety, and will come under heavy political pressure to allow the subpoena to go forward.

Never mind that the allegations of impropriety appear to have absolutely no merit. None of the six justices on the court have spoken in any official public capacity about the subpoenas or the pending legislation. But that is beside the point: the real purpose of the recusal motion is to turn public opinion against the courts by painting the judiciary as hopelessly biased.

There is a way out of this trap, but it will require several careful steps.

Continue reading “Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court”

EU sues Poland over 2019 judicial law

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been working assiduously to forge a politically subservient judiciary since 2017, when it first passed legislation to purge certain judges and install others favorable to its policies. These policies have been regularly condemned by Poland’s neighbors, and have already led to lawsuits. Now the EU is taking the next step: suing the Polish state in the European Court of Justice, arguing that the most recent round of changes to the Polish legal system undermine judicial independence.

Deutsche Welle explains:

At issue is the Polish law affecting the judiciary that came into force in February last year.

It prevents judges from referring questions of law to the ECJ. It also created a body that rules on judges’ independence without regard to EU law.

The bill also oversaw the creation of a “disciplinary chamber” to oversee Polish supreme court judges. This chamber — criticized for its close ties to the government — has the power to lift their immunity, allowing for judges to face criminal proceedings or cuts to their salaries.

One judge, Igor Tuleya, faced suspension and a 25% salary cut in November. He was among the justices to resist the changes to the legal system.

The Commission wants the ECJ to suspend the 2019 law as well as the disciplinary chamber and the decisions it has made concerning judges’ immunity, “to prevent the aggravation of serious and irreparable harm inflicted to judicial independence and the EU legal order.”

Poland has denied any breach of judicial independence, and challenges the EU’s power to regulate its internal judicial affairs.

Another chapter in a distressing saga.

State courts come under legislative assault

State legislators are trying to politicize their judiciaries for short-term gain. Courts, their users, and the public must speak up to stop them.

The first weeks of the 2021 legislative session have seen an extraordinary number of proposals to overhaul the selection of judges or otherwise affect the composition of state judiciaries. Among them:

In Montana, Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the state’s judicial nominating commission, giving the governor direct appointment power over district court judges and state supreme court justices. The nominating commission, in place for nearly half a century, was expressly implemented to depoliticize the judicial appointment process. Despite an outpouring of criticism for the proposal, which is widely seen as a partisan gambit by new Governor Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators, the bill passed the legislature last week. If signed by the governor, the bill would make Montana a national outlier in its refusal to use an independent nominating commission.

In Alaska, a very similar bill would eliminate the role of the state’s nominating commission for the appointment of judges on the district courts and state court of appeals. Senate Bill 14 was introduced by Republican senator Mike Shower in late January. As in Montana, the bill has been panned as “a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska’s system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics.” Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, similarly criticized the bill as undermining a well-established and respected judicial selection process. Continue reading “State courts come under legislative assault”

Are Supreme Court amicus briefs posing a transparency problem?

That’s the question raised in this excellent Wall Street Journal piece by Jess Bravin. He reports that the number of amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court has risen dramatically in recent years, with many of the briefs coming from opaque interest groups. Current Supreme Court rules only require that an amicus brief disclose whether a party or its lawyer funded the brief, or whether anyone else outside the named party contributed to its preparation. But this leaves plenty of room for little-known groups to file briefs, which may carry outsized influence with the Court.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is pushing for greater transparency in amicus briefs. I have criticized Senator Whitehouse routinely on this blog for his often perverse behaviors toward the federal courts, but on this issue we agree: greater transparency would benefit everyone.

Still, the courts would be better off modifying the policy themselves, rather than sitting back and allowing Whitehouse and his compatriots to force a legislative solution.

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.