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?”

Great moments in online media

From my web browser’s news feed this afternoon:

Screenshot 2021-10-14 15.07.40 cropped 

The Sotomayor story is somewhat intriguing in its own right, since the most obvious change in the Supreme Court’s post-pandemic non-interruption policy has been the emergence of a vocal and inquisitive Justice Thomas at oral arguments. One can only wonder what he might have asked over the past thirty years if he had not been swimming in the Court’s predominant ethos of  argumentum interruptus.

Biden tips his hand on the next Supreme Court nominee

Keep an eye on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the newest nominee to the D.C. Circuit.

Ketanji Brown JacksonPresident Biden has issued his first list of intended judicial nominees, mostly to federal district courts across the country. They are a highly accomplished and — as best I can tell — highly qualified group of nominees. 

Perusing the list, I’m going to call my shot now and predict that whenever an opening on the Supreme Court occurs, the  President’s first nominee will be Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Judge Jackson is already a well-respected federal district judge, and is set to be nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She therefore follows the path of other budding judicial stars who were elevated to the circuit courts before an eventual Supreme Court nomination by the same president. (Justice Amy Coney Barrett is the most recent example.) Judge Jackson also checks all the boxes: she is brilliant, accomplished, hard-working, well-respected, relatively young, and (important for Biden’s camp, at least) a Black woman. She is also kind, professional, and gracious — at least that is the clear memory I have from the time we overlapped as litigation associates at Goodwin Procter nearly twenty years ago.

Predictably, much of the mainstream media is focusing on the race and gender of the nominees, rather than their exceptional talent and qualifications. This does a remarkable disservice both to the nominees and the public. It reduces a lifetime of individual hard work, achievement — and yes, most assuredly some luck — to a crass demographic calculation. And it communicates that their skills and abilities are secondary to their immutable characteristics, a message that can only reduce confidence in judicial decisions and the court system as a whole.  

Congratulations to all the nominees. The country will better off with your skill and talent filling our open judgeships.

Israel’s High Court opens to cameras

The Times of Israel has a wonderful long-form piece on the decision of Israel’s High Court of Justice to open its proceedings to videocameras, just in time for a contentious political and legal fight over the proposed creation of a new unity government. The story explains how the High Court — facing charges that it had become increasingly political and therefore untrustworthy — decided to open its deliberations to public view. A snippet:

The fears of contamination and spectacle have been overtaken by growing frustration that the court’s story was being told by others, by right-wing critics and left-wing moralists, that no one was left in the public debate to defend the court on its own terms, to argue its deliberations were earnest and exacting and its concerns legal rather than political.

And so Chief Justice Esther Hayut embarked on a “pilot” project in mid-April to broadcast many of the court’s hearings and deliberations to the outside world — just in time for the most contentious and politically significant hearings in the nation’s recent history.

The result has been a revelation. For the first time, Israelis could watch the proceedings in their entirety. And according to the Government Press Office that managed the broadcast, about a million Israelis watched the deliberations on Sunday and Monday — 130,000 just through the GPO servers, and the rest via the live broadcasts on all three major television channels and multiple online news outlets.

They watched the justices push back against all sides, saw their frustration with the sloppiness and grandstanding of the left-wing petitioners and their pinpoint questions to the representatives of the right that forced unexpected compromises.

Again and again, the justices interrupted attorneys’ speeches prepared not for the courtrooms but for the cameras.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, for the viewer as much as the viewed.

What does a court hearing by videoconference look like? Here’s an example.

Kudos to the Miami Herald for posting this story on the first Zoom hearing in a criminal case in the Miami-Dade court system. Most interestingly, the story includes an edited video of the hearing, in which the judge sat in the courtroom, the prosecutor on her home patio, and the primary witness in the front seat of his police SUV.

It is reassuring to see that the justice system is continuing to operate relatively smoothly under difficult circumstances. It is also comforting to observe how seriously some courts are taking their ongoing responsibility to provide transparent and accessible justice.

Judge finds a First Amendment right to access civil complaints without delay

A federal judge in Virginia has concluded that there is a qualified right to review state court civil complaints immediately after they are filed. The judge’s ruling came after the Courthouse News Service sued Virginia state court officials, alleging that court clerks in two counties were instructed not to provide access to new complaints until the documents had been scanned and uploaded to a public access terminal.

The federal court declined to issue an injunction in the case, noting that state court officials appeared to be trying to comply with their obligations in good faith. The court required the parties to appear for a joint status conference in August to discuss the level of access provided by the defendants.

There is always a certain tension between the public’s right to know about civil cases brought in its court system, and respect for private litigants. But there is no question that the right balance here falls in favor of First Amendment rights. Litigants are free to seek orders that seal or otherwise protect their court filings in appropriate circumstances.

A transparent media attempt to politicize judicial resources

As it does every year, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has propounded a budget request to Congress for the upcoming fiscal year. The new request seeks a 4.4% increase in the overall judicial budget, with the money helping to cover Congressionally approved judicial pay raises, updating older facilities, and implementing federal legislation concerning the courts. More money is also needed for base salaries because many federal judicial vacancies — especially at the district court level — have been filled over the past year.

But that didn’t stop the reporters and editors at Bloomberg Law from telling us what the increase is really about: Donald Trump. In a story titled, Judiciary Requests More Money for Trump Judges, Bloomberg asserts:

President Donald Trump’s judicial appointments are among the factors contributing to the federal judiciary’s request to Congress for a 4.4% increase in its budget.

Trump has moved aggressively to fill the federal judiciary with conservatives. So far, that’s resulted in 188 judicial appointees to federal district and appeals courts, and two justices on the Supreme Court: Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

The judiciary’s requested funding boost for the next fiscal year takes into account money needed to provide salary and benefits for a higher-than-expected volume of judges confirmed and their chambers staff, a judiciary spokesman said.

This is remarkably lazy writing and editing. The headline is slanted — the money is for the workings of the entire judiciary, not just “Trump Judges” — and the opening grafs suggest that there is something unseemly about the President and Senate fulfilling their constitutional roles to populate the judiciary.

There is probably little practical harm that will come out of this sloppy article, but the public — and the courts — deserve better.

Transparency and resource demands combine to squeeze the Maryland courts

The Capital Gazette reports on a loophole in Maryland’s electronic filing system, which allows attorneys to designate documents as “confidential” without filing a separate motion to seal with the court. Using the designation effective prevents interested parties, including the media, from accessing the court filings.

Court documents are presumed to be publicly available, and normally a party must move the court to seal specific documents and provide good reasons for the request. It appears that when Maryland moved to electronic filing in 2014, the system was set up to allow attorneys in cases with exposing sealing orders to designate certain documents as confidential. Lawyers are warned not to designate documents as confidential unless they are covered by a rule or statute. It appears, however, that many documents that should be public have been improperly designated.

The courts do not monitor electronic filing designations on a regular basis, which is probably sensible given the court system’s limited resources. But some greater allocation of resources — either in monitoring or in fixing the electronic loophole — may now be warranted.

Connecticut ends newspaper publication of court notices

Pennoyer v. Neff noticeThe Hartford Courant reports that the Connecticut state courts will no longer require parties to publish court notices in local papers, effective January 2. Instead, notices will be published in a dedicated court website.

The practice of court notice by publication, sometimes called constructive notice, goes back centuries. It is designed to assure that all interested parties are informed of legal proceedings, especially when those parties cannot be found personally. Indeed, constructive notice played a central role in two of the most famous Supreme Court cases in history. In Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co. (1950), the Court signed off on constructive notice for parties who could not be reasonably ascertained at the time the suit was filed. In Pennoyer v. Neff (1877), the infamous bane of many a first-year law student, the Court based its personal jurisdiction analysis on the premise that constructive notice alone was not enough for the Oregon courts to exercise power over an out-of-state defendant.

Constructive notice is founded on the assumption that if notice is published somewhere, the interested parties are reasonably likely to learn about the proceeding. That itself is a bit of a fiction — the notice in Pennoyer v. Neff was published in a local religious publication called the Pacific Christian Reporter — hardly a paper of major import or geographical reach. But with the unquestioned dominance of the internet in our lives, and the ongoing struggles of the newspaper industry, it is probably more fair to post notices online that in the paper anyway. Newspaper publishers might be rightly angry about the development, but with 2020 on the horizon, it seems sensible for the Connecticut courts to embrace the twenty-first century.

Pictured: The newspaper notice in Pennoyer v. Neff

The costs of judicial interdependence, Part I

First in an occasional series on how organizational interdependence affects the judiciary

Two recent stories illustrate how the structural interdependence of courts within a constitutional system can drive judicial choices and behaviors.

We start in Sandusky, Ohio, where Common Pleas Judge John Dewey appointed his personal court administrator as a deputy court clerk, a position that would allow the administrator to handle all filings in a sensitive case involving allegations of sexual assault. Judge Dewey further decreed that the case filings should remain sealed, meaning that the newly appointed deputy court clerk would be the sole gatekeeper of the records.

The decision angered the local media, which asserted a First Amendment right of access to the filings. This was not an ordinary case of sexual assault: the defendant was the local district attorney, and the public had an interest in the proceedings. To complicate matters further, under Ohio law court records are supposed to be handled by an elected official. Judge Dewey’s administrator was not elected, and Judge Dewey apparently did not inform the elected court clerk about his preferred arrangement. This decision caused enormous confusion in the clerk’s office, both as to why he did not tell the elected clerk what he was doing, and as to whether Dewey’s decision to appoint a deputy court clerk was even legal.

It is also unclear why Judge Dewey had been given the case, given that the defendant was a regular–indeed, institutional–participant in the Sandusky County court system. Typically, when a local attorney or judge is involved as a party in litigation, the case is assigned to a judge unaffiliated with that jurisdiction to prevent a judicial conflict of interest. Somehow, though, Dewey held on to the case for months even though it created a visible conflict with other cases on his docket that had been brought by the prosecutor’s office.

Judge Dewey finally recused himself in late September, noting that “Sandusky County Judges have a conflict in this matter as it may involve a Sandusky County elected official.” A retired judge was appointed to take over the case, and in early December the defendant took a plea deal that will keep him out of jail but require him to resign from his elected position.

So what was going on here? It’s hard to know whether Judge Dewey’s series of odd choices–not recusing himself from the outset, holding on to the case for months, and quietly appointing his administrator to have sole control over the court papers–was driven by ignorance or some sort of malfeasance. But whatever Dewey’s motivation, the situation was made possible by the tight institutional connection between elected officials within the local Ohio court system. Prosecutors, court clerks, and judges are all elected on partisan platforms. Prosecutors often seek judicial office. And the internal community is likely very tight-knit. In many localities the judge, court staff, and criminal attorneys spend so much time together on the job that they come to think of themselves as a team of sorts–what Professor Herbert Jacob called a “courtroom work group” — even though each participant has very different roles and responsibilities. (If you are familiar with the chumminess of the characters on the old “Night Court” series, you get the idea.)

The most benign view of Judge Dewey’s actions, then, is that he sought to protect the court system and its established courtroom work groups from external interference by a curious media. He assigned a trusted assistant to manage and seal records so that a sensitive matter could be handled without undue political pressure. And he overlooked a legal requirement to share that information with the elected clerk. If so, Dewey made a series of mistakes, but in service to the larger institutional scheme. This suggests that there is, perhaps, too much interdependence between the local institutions, such that it is impossible to truly separate them even when doing so would be in the interest of justice.

Of course, it may well be that the benign view is not the correct one, and that Dewey was protecting a prosecutor friend by knowingly, and improperly, taking over his case, and then hiding the details from the media. That certainly seems to be the view of the local paper, which has called for a deeper investigation. But even in this scenario, the situation was exacerbated by the interrelationship of the courts, the prosecutor’s office, and the voting public.

The only clear corrective to this type of problem is vigilance. Those inside the court system need to recognize when their interdependencies can erode the judiciary’s legitimacy or moral authority, and take proactive steps to address them. Those outside the system need to use their powers–formal or informal–to identify potential abuses and call for change. That process is playing out now in Ohio, hopefully with positive results for the future.