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?”

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”

Making sense of the new PACER bill

There is plenty of room for constructive compromise, but it requires everyone to acknowledge that “free” PACER is not actually free.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, H.R. 8235, by a voice vote. The bill would radically reform access to federal court records by requiring (among other things) that the courts’ PACER system be modernized and its contents made free to the public. The bill drew praise from open courts advocates, and furious pushback from the Judicial Conference and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). Indeed, the Judicial Conference’s reaction was probably the most vigorous response I have seen from the courts in many years.

It is a rare piece of legislation these days that can simultaneously garner bipartisan support and solicit institutional panic from the judicial branch. So it’s worth examining closely. What we find is an opportunity for the court system to improve its transparency and its own performance, albeit not on the schedule or in the manner it would prefer. Continue reading “Making sense of the new PACER bill”

Jurisdiction stripping is back, this time from the left

Here’s something I wrote about federal judicial accountability:

Many commentators have praised Article III’s guarantees of life tenure and freedom from salary cuts as essential tools to preserve judicial independence. Far less frequently have the commentators explored the impact of these guarantees on judicial accountability. Rather, until relatively recently, the prevalent assumption (dating back to the original Federalist debates) has been that “the perceived need for judicial accountability to counterbalance life tenure, nonreducible salaries, and judicial review, began and ended with the impeachment mechanism.” A reexamination of that assumption, however, has been sparked in the early twenty-first century both by academic commentators and some in Congress. The last ten years alone have produced a host of creative— sometimes outrageous—alternatives to promote federal judicial accountability through (in most cases) a combination of executive and legislative power and populist sentiment. Some such proposals are effectively substance-neutral, most notably replacing life tenure with fixed, lengthy judicial terms. Other proposals, however, are aimed at the substance of judicial decision-making, among them several schemes to strip federal courts of jurisdiction to hear certain types of cases. Prominent politicians have even occasionally threatened impeachment—or worse—for federal judges as a punishment for decisions they did not find appropriate. Contributing to the tenor of politically “accountable” judges is a federal judicial appointment process that has become increasingly partisan in the last two decades.

This paragraph was part of the introduction to an article I co-wrote twelve years ago, and yet it feels surprisingly fresh. The difference is that while many of the efforts to subject the court to populism and political sentiment a decade ago came from conservatives, today those same views are being embraced by the liberal establishment. Countless bad ideas — Court packing, term limits, and the like — continue to emerge, with the most recent being the rediscovery of jurisdiction-stripping. Bloomberg Businessweek explains:

Some liberal proponents believe jurisdiction stripping could help Democrats shield bold future legislation from damaging court battles. In theory a Democratic Congress could pass a health-care plan or a Green New Deal with a provision stipulating that the legislation lies outside the bounds of Supreme Court review.

Under variations of the jurisdiction-stripping proposal, Democratic lawmakers could also limit the ability of lower courts to review legislation or could confine legal challenges to geographic regions where courts are generally sympathetic.

Let’s be clear about what’s happening. Today’s politicians, unable or unwilling to do the hard work of compromise and dealmaking, are leaving the courts to make sense of hastily written and sloppy laws. When lawmakers don’t like the results, they propose extreme “fixes” which would deny the courts the ability to do even their core adjudicative work. This is wrong, whether it comes from the right or the left, and is symptomatic of how awful our political class — and their academic enablers — have become.

The Trump Records Requests and the Potential for Judicial Intrusion into the Legislative Process

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Few observers could have been surprised by the federal appeals court’s decision in Trump v. Mazars USA, concluding that President Donald Trump cannot stop his accounting firm from producing financial information about him in response to a subpoena from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. In fact, Trump has lost every case in which access to his personal financial records has been sought. The Supreme Court has agreed to review these decisions, with oral argument scheduled for March, and the Mazars USA case may prove the most intriguing—especially to those justices who prefer an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation.

The majority in Mazars USA validated the House Committee’s rationale for the subpoena to Trump’s accountants: the information about the president’s finances was necessary to further Congress’s legitimate legislative objectives. It is well settled that congressional committees may investigate matters upon which Congress can legislate. Through investigation, Congress may determine whether existing laws are sufficient, and whether they are being adequately enforced. The results of an investigation may persuade Congress to strengthen or modify existing laws—or propose new regulatory requirements. The request of Trump’s accounting firm, for example, related to the congressional interest in the efficacy of existing financial disclosure laws.

Given that the power to investigate is, as the Supreme Court has put it, “inherent in the legislative process,” courts generally have deferred to Congress’s stated rationale for seeking certain information in connection with a particular inquiry. Indeed, Congress enjoys relatively wide discretion to decide how best to go about the business of lawmaking. Such judicial deference appropriately leaves the democratic process to serve as the check on the legitimacy of Congress’s exercise of its investigative and policymaking authority.

These principles suggest the majority in Mazars USA made the right call in respect to the information held by Trump’s accountants, but Judge Neomi Rao’s dissenting opinion is still noteworthy. Relying upon text, history and the views of the framers, Rao sees a defined and judicially enforceable line: when a congressional inquiry touches on potential presidential wrongdoing, she reasons, “it does not matter whether the investigation also has a legislative purpose,” because “[a]llegations that an impeachable official acted unlawfully must be pursued through impeachment.” Rao accordingly would have held that investigations that turn on potential criminal conduct by the president or executive branch officials can only be pursued through the impeachment process.

Rao views a strict separation between legislative and impeachment authority as necessary to ensure that the House of Representatives does not escape the accountability associated with an impeachment inquiry. It is not entirely clear why the people would be more likely to hold House members accountable for the decision to undertake an impeachment inquiry as opposed to purely legislative investigation. After all, regardless of the House’s ends, its members serve the smallest number of constituents, hold office for the shortest terms of any elected federal official and, as a result, are the most responsive to the will of the people—which is true no matter the substance of any action the House undertakes.

Nonetheless, Rao’s originalist approach might well attract the attention of justices like Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Were a majority of the Supreme Court to embrace her categorical division between legislative and impeachment investigations, Congress would face practical questions about how to exercise its lawmaking authority. On the one hand, House majorities could continue to pursue legislative investigations, and when they uncover evidence of illegal conduct by executive branch officials, the investigations could be reconstituted as impeachment inquiries. On the other, House majorities could decide to make impeachment the default mode of congressional investigation, regardless where it might lead—which could see the House operating in impeachment mode pretty much all the time.

In the end, no matter the label attached to the way in which the House chooses to pursue its constitutional lawmaking functions, the structural incentives for members of the majority to respond to constituent demands would remain unchanged. House investigations might proceed under different headings, but the questions – and the goals –in most instances would look quite familiar.

Through it all, moreover, Rao’s framework would appear to contemplate the courts policing the line between legislative and impeachment investigations. Judges, in other words, could be reviewing how duly elected members of Congress choose to go about pursuing their official responsibilities. To borrow Chief Justice John Roberts’s favorite analogy, such an approach could empower judicial umpires to go beyond simply calling balls and strikes and, instead, second-guess a manager’s strategic choices. Perhaps needless to say, such a development risks potentially dangerous judicial intrusion into the functioning of a coordinate branch of government.

Louisiana raises judicial salaries

Louisiana legislators voted overwhelmingly last week to raise the salaries of state judges by 2.5% in the coming year. If funds permit, judges would continue to receive equivalent pay raises for each of the four years after that as well.

The source of the funding struck me as noteworthy:

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed to cover the first year of pay raises for judges — at an estimated cost of $1.8 million — from its substantial cash reserves. It’s unclear whether judges will continue to tap reserves or turn to state taxpayers to cover future raises, which could cost as much as $9.5 million per year if all five annual pay hikes are awarded.

I thought that judicial salaries typically came from funds controlled by the legislature. It’s quite interesting that salaries are to be paid (at last initially) out of the state supreme court’s “substantial” independent funds.

Massachusetts dallies with, and rejects, judicial term limits

My colleague Lawrence Freidman — a sometime guest contributor to this blog — praises the decision here:

The measure the Committee rejected proposed amending the state constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years by the governor’s council. In an interview with The Lowell Sun, the author of the “Proposal for a Legislative Amendment to the Constitution Relative to the Term of Judicial Officers,” Representative Tom Golden, stated that the goal was judicial accountability, particularly for those judges “who consistently make poor legal decisions. 

There are two problems with this justification. First, it is far from clear that there ever could be universal agreement – or even agreement among the members of the Governor’s Council – as to the definition of a “poor legal decision.” It is a fact that, in every civil and criminal case, one party is bound to be disappointed by some judicial ruling, whether it concerned scheduling, procedural mattersor the admissibility of evidence—not to mention the end result. In other words, decrying a “poor legal decision” is in many instances another way of saying you simply do not agree with that particular decision. 

This is not to say that judges are infallible, or that no judicial decision can be deemed objectively wrong. But this leads to the second problem with the proposal: the notion that the only effective form of accountability is one that involves the democratic removal of constitutional officers from their posts.

Read the whole thing!

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”