New York’s Chief Judge resigns amid ethics probe

Janet DiFiore, the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, announced yesterday that she will resign effective August 31 of this year. Chief Judge DiFiore leaves with more than two years remaining on her term. She served not only as the chief of New York’s top court, but also as the chief administrator for the state’s sprawling (and often byzantine) court system.

The timing is certainly curious. DiFiore did not specify why she was leaving, other than to vaguely refer to “the next chapter in life.” Speculation is high that her resignation was influenced by a pending ethics probe, in which she is alleged to have attempted to influence a disciplinary action against a former court employee.

Governor Kathy Hochul will appoint DiFiore’s successor.

Newly elected judges swap courts to minimize conflicts of interest

Two recently elected judges in upstate New York have been assigned to each other’s courthouses in an effort to minimize potential conflicts. Both judges were long-time legal aid attorneys and developed extensive relationships with lawyers and other actors in their respective courts. Recognizing that the likelihood of a conflict of interest — real or perceived — was too high, the state court administrator had the judges swap courts for a year.

This is a rather elegant solution, and seems to be in the best interests of all involved. The judges can get accustomed to the bench without the constant specter of conflicts, and soon enough will return to the jurisdictions that elected them. In the meantime, the public can have more confidence that the judges’ decisions are not based on old professional relationships, and the court system will have fewer conflicts to manage.

COVID complicates access to New York’s mental health courts

The New York Daily News has a very interesting feature on the Manhattan’s specialized mental health court, and the special challenges facing those who would like to use it during this pandemic-stricken era.

Only a handful of cases ever make it to Manhattan Mental Health Court, according to data provided by the district attorney — and that was before COVID-19 ground the city to a halt. On Friday, after tentatively opening some courtrooms for trials and hearings over the summer, the Office of Court Administration once again shut down most in-person proceedings, citing a recent surge in the virus.

Even pre-COVID, the mental health court moved at a plodding pace. In 2018, the office received 74 requests for referral. Of those, prosecutors consented to refer 43 cases — about 58% — and declined to refer the rest. In 2019, the office got 136 requests. They consented to 46 cases — about 34% — and declined to refer the remaining 90.

The office referred three cases this year before the court shutdown in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Twelve cases were not referred to mental health court, though two of those were referred to another diversion court. Thirty-five are pending.

The whole story is worth the read, especially for those interested in how specialized state courts can make a difference in people’s lives — if they are accessible.

In-person jury trials to resume in Brooklyn

For the first time in seven months, Brooklyn courts will begin to hold jury trials inside courthouses. A number of safety measures have been implemented, including temperature checks, plexiglass screens, and upgraded air filtration systems.

During the last several months, a number of courts worldwide held jury trials outdoors or in large, socially distanced venues. As winter approaches (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), trials will have no choice but to move indoors. Hopefully they prove to be safe and successful.

COVID’s silent victim in the courts: traditional due process

Gothamist has a really nice piece by Beth Fertig about socially distanced trials in a Brooklyn Housing Court. Even with Herculean efforts on the part of judges and court staff, these trials are a mess. Lawyers and clients cannot sit next to each other. Entire courthouses have been deemed too small to hold any trials. Members of the public cannot view the trial because of social distancing restrictions. It just feels…weird.

The story underscores how deeply procedural fairness is built into a traditional trial. Under ordinary circumstances, trials would be open to the public and the media. Parties would sit with their lawyers and confer with them throughout the process. In jury trials, simply being in the courtroom would place pressure on jurors to pay close attention to the arguments and evidence. Lawyers would be able to confront witnesses without any fear that they are being coached by someone off-camera. There would be a strong sense of both party involvement and public transparency.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced courts to choose strategies that weaken one or both of these values. In-person, socially distanced trials allow some form of party involvement, including confronting witnesses. But they forfeit much of the transparency that benefits both the public and the parties. By contrast, videoconferenced trials are more amenable to public view, but raise problems for parties who lack the proper technology, or whose homes are more chaotic or challenging than the august, stoic nature of the courtroom.

All this is to say that the sooner we can get back to regular courtroom proceedings, the better. And in the meantime, we should be more cognizant of the due process considerations that are already so carefully built into our traditional trial structure.

Singapore court sentences defendant to death via Zoom

Courts worldwide are using videoconferencing technology for a wide range of proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic, including (in some instances) trials. And disturbing new ground was broken this past week, when a judge in Singapore sentenced a defendant to death by remote video. The defendant had been found guilty of participating in a drug deal, and Singapore has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to illegal drugs.

This is probably not the place or time to reflect on Singapore’s draconian criminal laws and sentencing practices. But regardless of where one falls on the capital punishment debate, there is something especially dehumanizing about receiving a death sentence through a video screen. The judge (or jury) should have to look the defendant in the eye–face to face–when assessing such a punishment.

American courts have been experimenting with Zoom sentencing, and in fact a federal district court is scheduled to sentence a white collar defendant by videoconference on June 4. But that defendant is based in France and is hoping to avoid prison time altogether; it is night and day when compared to the Singapore sentence.

(h/t John McCarthy)

 

States Cannot Prefer Graduates of Their Own Law Schools for Bar Exam Seats

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

As state bar examiners attempt to navigate the administration of this summer’s examination through the challenges posed by the novel coronavirus, some – including New York and Massachusetts – have attracted no small amount of attention by seeking to give priority placement to graduates of in-state law schools. Writing in Justia, Dean Vikram David Amar has argued that such restrictions are unconstitutional because they violate the dormant commerce clause. I have no quarrel with his analysis and here simply anticipate, and respond to, another potential argument defending a preference for in-state law school graduates.

Under the dormant commerce clause, states may not expressly prefer in-state businesses to the disadvantage of their out-of-state counterparts. As Dean Amar notes, the policies embraced by states like New York and Massachusetts, which “explicitly treat all in-state law schools differently than all out-of-state law schools,” effectuate clear discrimination between local and out-of-state interests.

When state rules affirmatively discriminate against interstate commerce, they are subject to demanding judicial scrutiny: as the Supreme Court explained in Maine v. Taylor, the state must carry the burden of demonstrating both that the rule serves a local purpose that is effectively compelling, “and that this purpose could not be served as well by available nondiscriminatory means.” Continue reading “States Cannot Prefer Graduates of Their Own Law Schools for Bar Exam Seats”

Another look at state courts handling the COVID crisis

This story nicely illustrates how the New York court system absorbed the initial blow of coronavirus-related closings, and is now slowly reopening its civil docket via videoconference. The story is probably not an unusual one for state courts in this unusual time, but it seems worth logging some of them here for posterity.

Three New York judges die from COVID-19

Sad, if likely inevitable, news: COVID-19 deaths are now directly impacting the judiciary. Yesterday, New York state officials reported that 168 state court employees had contracted the novel coronavirus, including 17 state judges. At least three of those judges — all in their mid-60s — have now died from the virus.

Aside from the personal loss and grief that comes from the sickness and death of colleagues and coworkers, the New York court system now finds itself with fewer human resources to keep up with its work. Already the system (like all court systems) has slowed its pace and transitioned at least in part to video and teleconferencing, but the attrition in the internal workforce with complicate matters even further. There are likely to be ripple effects throughout the criminal and civil justice systems as judges, court staff, attorneys, parties, and witnesses battle the disease personally and in relation to their families and friends.