The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

In retrospect, the contretemps at summer’s end between the District Attorney’s office and a municipal court judge in Boston looks like a case study on the importance of effective accountability mechanisms in a judicial system. The dispute between prosecutors and Judge Richard Sinnott arose following the arrest of counter-demonstrators during the Boston Straight Pride Parade. Sinnott refused to accept an entry of nolle prosequi – the abandonment of a charge – in respect to certain defendants accused of disorderly conduct, on the ground that doing so would violate a Massachusetts statute that protects victims’ rights. The judge also ordered that a defense attorney arguing in favor of accepting the nolle prosequi be handcuffed and removed from the courtroom.

In addition to attracting a great deal of media attention, Judge Sinnott’s actions came in the wake of both a failed effort to amend the method of judicial selection in Massachusetts, and the release of the Boston Bar Association report, “Judicial Independence: Promoting Justice and Maintaining Democracy,” which defended the Commonwealth’s system of judicial selection through gubernatorial appointment with approval by the governor’s council. The responses to Sinnott’s denial of the Commonwealth’s entry of nolle prosequi and detention of a defendant’s lawyer illustrate ways in which real accountability is possible without abandoning judicial tenure. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the working group that drafted the Boston Bar Association report).

The Massachusetts legislature rejected a recent proposal to amend the constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years, an initiative aimed at ensuring judicial accountability, according to one of the sponsors, for those judges who “make poor legal decisions.” The Boston Bar Association report, on the other hand, highlighted the existing mechanisms through which judges can be held accountable within the existing system. These mechanisms include the appellate process, an enforceable code of judicial conduct, and the promotion of transparency. Each of these mechanisms has worked in the case of Judge Sinnott.

Continue reading “The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts”

The Illinois courts — we’re not dysfunctional!

There is something odd about the tone of this e-newsletter from Illinois Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier. It is ostensibly announcing good news about a significant funding increase for the Illinois state court system in 2020. But Karmeier takes a weird stab at his colleagues on other, “dysfunctional” state courts, as well as lamenting the same “dysfunction” of the other branches of government in his own state. The article itself is a fairly benign piece praising the court system’s new “workable” budget, but it is written with a bit more color than one might expect from a state chief justice.

Karmeier’s election to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004 was rife with political intrigue, and I do not follow the Illinois courts enough to speak to his professional mannerisms or various political pressures on the courts of that state. Readers can judge for themselves whether I am reading too much into this.

Tennessee courts launch new podcast

The Tennessee courts have launched a podcast entitled “Tennessee Court Talk,” which can be found at the courts’ main website, tncourts.gov.

“The TNcourts.gov website receives nearly six million hits each year, and those hits are very focused on legal research regarding how the courts work, court rules and procedures, and recent cases,” said Barbara Peck, communications director for the Tennessee Supreme Court and Administrative Office of the Courts.

“The need for information is there, and the podcast gives us another tool for meeting that need.”
This is a great idea, and I’ll be watching (and listening) to see how it develops.

Las Vegas Review-Journal revives attorney surveys of local judges

I have a guest post up at the IAALS Blog, which looks at a renewed effort to survey attorneys about judicial performance in Nevada. But unlike formal judicial performance evaluation (JPE) programs in other states, these surveys will be sponsored by the state’s largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Another difference: the surveys are designed in part to identify poor-performing judges this fall so as to attract election challengers for 2020. I find this second aspect particularly uncomfortable and largely inconsistent with the voter education and self-improvement goals of typical JPE programs, but judge for yourself.

Minnesota broadcasts criminal sentencings … and the world doesn’t end

One of the main concerns expressed by lawyers and judges about courtroom cameras is that they will lead to grandstanding and obnoxious courtroom behavior. But the experience in Minnesota state courts suggests that these concerns are overblown. Using a bit of a loophole in the law — sentencing proceedings do not require assent from the parties — more media are gaining camera access to high-profile sentencings. The results have been mostly positive.

There are ample reasons to want to protect the privacy of victims, jurors, and witnesses during trial. But there are also ample reasons to make the open forum of the courtroom truly open to everyone. Video access of court proceedings is assuredly compatible with safety, due process, and substantial justice.

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.

New developments in lawsuits concerning judicial elections in Alabama and Arkansas

Two lawsuits involving judicial elections–one each in Alabama and Arkansas–were the subject of new developments this past week.

In Alabama, the NAACP and Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state’s method of electing state appellate judges discriminates against African-American voters. The lawsuit claims that the absence of black judges on any state appellate court is the result of discriminatory vote dilution tactics. The state moved to dismiss the case on the grounds of sovereign immunity, but U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins denied the motion to dismiss, and set the case for a bench trial. Attorneys for the state have now taken their case to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to overturn Judge Watkins’s refusal to dismiss the case.

The Arkansas case involved a controversial attack ad against incumbent state judge Courtney Goodson, who was seeking reelection. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, had been running the ad on several stations in northwest Arkansas when a county judge barred its further broadcast in May. The corporate owner of a Little Rock television station appealed the injunction. But last week, the state court of appeals ruled that the issue was now moot, since Justice Goodson has won reelection, and the ad was no longer airing. The issue may be moot for now, but the larger issues–prior restraint of political speech, the influence of “dark money” in elections, and the wisdom of electing judges in any event–remain.