What should we expect when Justices Alito and Kagan testify before Congress this week?

Political theater, to be sure — but of the potentially useful variety.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan will reportedly testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on financial services and general government on March 7, to discuss the Court’s annual budget request. It will be the first public hearing on the Court’s budget since 2015; over the last several years, Justices have met privately with Congressional leaders.

The tradition of federal judges (including Supreme Court Justices) testifying before Congress dates back at least to the 1920s, when then-Chief Justice Taft and selected colleagues repeatedly appeared before Congress to discuss pending legislation affecting the courts. But that was in an era before television cameras and Twitter. The purpose and meaning of such hearings has long changed, and the presence of Justices, sans robes, at the witness table is sufficiently unusual these days as to attract quite a bit of attention.

Even though the scheduled testimony is technically about the Court’s budget, everyone seems to understand that financial minutiae will only be a small part of the discussion. Subcommittee members are likely to use the rare opportunity for direct interaction with the Justices to broach a variety of unrelated subjects, including an ethics code for the Supreme Court, the introduction of courtroom cameras, and the federal court system’s new workplace conduct policies.

The hearing itself is unlikely to break any new ground. The Justices have a strong tradition of circling the wagons on their internal matters, and Justice Kagan in particular has a smooth temperament that helps her avoid stepping into controversy. (She did manage to effectively wrangle the Harvard Law faculty for several years, after all.) Alito and Kagan both understand the nature of the production, as well as the ultimate goal: to get out unscathed.

To the extent Congress and the courts need to coordinate on important issues, one can only hope that they are doing so behind the scenes. The courts have been understandably cautious about communicating directly with Congress on matters of legal interpretation, given separation of powers concerns. But administrative issues are a different animal altogether, and there is ample space for the courts to work with Congress on funding and operational issues which are of important interest to both branches.

Still, while Thursday’s hearing may not produce much that is immediately newsworthy, it is still an important exercise. The Supreme Court has been famously reticent to align many of its practices with modern public expectations, from failing to adopt an ethics code to rejecting calls for courtroom cameras. Congressional hearings put the Justices on the spot to justify the Court’s positions in a public forum, thereby forcing the Court to periodically reconsider whether its existing practices help or harm its public legitimacy.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the federal court system should allow itself to be bullied by Congress or public demand, but there is still room for continuous improvement. The occasional public hearing can be a useful pressure point to bring that improvement to fruition.

 

 

The PACER class action and the problem of court funding

Which is the best model for charging for access to court records: a rest stop, a bus pass, or a bake sale?

What (if anything) should the judiciary charge for public access to records, and how should that decision be made? That question is now squarely facing the federal courts and Congress.

I have blogged periodically about the 2016 class action lawsuit alleging that the federal courts overcharged users for access to its electronic public records system (known as PACER), and used the surplus to fund a variety of internal projects. Last spring, a federal district judge granted partial summary judgment to the defendants as to liability, but concluded that some of the project funding had indeed exceeded Congressional authorization. The decision is now on appeal.

Although no decision will be coming for a while, a number of recent events have returned the case to the public eye. In late January, several prominent, retired federal judges filed an amicus brief arguing that the courts should not charge any fees for public access to court records. That brief led to a story in the New Republic entitled “The Courts Are Making a Killing on Public Records.” All the while, the five-week federal government shutdown forced the courts to use up all of their “rainy day” resources and put them on the verge of operating without funding, illustrating the relative financial fragility of the courts as an organization.

I take as a given that the federal court system, as a whole, is committed to providing public access for all. But it is also a given that on an organizational level, the court system feels an obligation to protect its core activities from environmental disruption, including financial disruption. The current lawsuit provides an excellent illustration of the underlying tension between those values, and also suggests a solution. More below. Continue reading “The PACER class action and the problem of court funding”

African-American legislators protest South Carolina judicial election

South Carolina is one of only two states in which the legislature chooses the state’s judges. (Virginia is the other.) Often, the biggest concern about this form of selection is that legislators will choose their colleagues for the bench rather than seeking out the best possible candidates.

This week, however, a different issue arose in South Carolina’s judicial election process. In a contested race for the state court of appeals, private attorney Blake Hewitt was elected over Allison Renee Lee, a state trial judge with 20 years of experience. Hewitt was considered highly qualified for the position, but lacked any of Lee’s judicial experience. Hewitt is also white, and Lee is black.

After the election, several (but not all) black legislators briefly walked out of chambers in protest. Some suggested that the election was an act of racism, while others expressed concern about ensuring greater diversity on the state bench.

The state of state judiciaries

It’s the time of year for State of the Judiciary addresses in many states, an opportunity for the Chief Justice of the state to provide the new state legislature with an update on the court system, including its strategic plans and ongoing resource needs. Several State of the Judiciary speeches have been reported in the news, allowing us to get a broad sense of what state courts are planning/hoping for in the coming year. More after the jump. Continue reading “The state of state judiciaries”

For some state judges, lobbying is part of the job description

One of the most important themes of judicial interdependence is resource dependence. By conscious design, courts cannot produce or directly obtain many of the resources that they need to operate. These resources include immediate, survival-level needs like adequate funding and staffing, but they also include less tangible resources like public trust and legitimacy, and long-term needs like enabling legislation.

For better of for worse, most of the courts’ needed resources are in the hands of the legislature. Congress and state legislatures allocate funds to the judicial branch, determine the number of judges that the courts will have and the conditions upon which those judges will be selected, enact statutes granting courts jurisdiction to hear cases and authority to manage their internal affairs, and set the public tone in the way they treat the courts and individual judges.

So it should not be surprising to see judges directly asking legislatures for resources from time to time. The U.S. Courts submit a formal budget request to Congress every year, and on several occasions federal judges have testified before Congress on bills that affect the judiciary’s operations. And at the state court level, it is all the more prevalent. Many state chief justices provide a formal State of the Judiciary speech to their respective legislatures at the start of a new year, in which they lay out the work of the state courts over the previous year and lobby for resources to sustain or improve operations. That lobbying process may coincide with the speech, but often starts beforehand and continues long into the legislative session.

Consider New Mexico. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura will present her State of the Judiciary speech on Thursday, but she has already set the groundwork for the courts’ legislative “ask.” Several days ago, she sat down with the editors of the Albuquerque Journal. That access enabled the Journal to report, with considerable depth, that the state judiciary would pursue two constitutional amendments and several statutory changes in the upcoming legislative session. The constitutional changes would affect the timing of participation in judicial elections and the court’s ability to effectuate administrative transfers among courts. The statutory changes would set aside certain requirements with respect to appeals and jury service in order to make those processes more efficient. And of course, the courts are asking for additional funding for specific projects.

Chief Justices bear significant administrative responsibilities: they are the CEOs of their court systems as much as they are judges. In that capacity, a little legislative lobbying–and lobbying in the media–is very much fair game.