Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court

Republican officials in Montana, who declared open season on their own judicial system earlier this year, fired a new salvo at the courts late last week. State Attorney General Austin Knudsen requested that the entire state supreme court recuse itself in a case involving a legislative subpoena of internal court documents.

In March, Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law a bill that would eliminate the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission, and allow the governor to fill judicial vacancies directly. Several weeks ago, the Republican legislature issued a subpoena to the state court administrator, seeking internal emails and other court documents (Including an internal poll) in which state trial judges allegedly expressed opinions on the constitutionality of that legislation. The court administrator asked the state supreme court to quash the subpoena, and Chief Justice Mike McGrath recused himself from that determination because he had lobbied the governor not to sign the bill. The remaining six members of the state supreme court quashed those subpoena in mid-April, pending a further hearing.

The AG now asserts that all members of the supreme court are directly conflicted from participating in any future hearing on the issue, because they would be ruling on access to their own internal documents. The justices’ continued participation in the case constitutes, in the AG’s words, “not merely the appearance of impropriety. This is actual impropriety.”

At first glance, state Republicans have laid a trap for the judiciary worthy of a cartoon villain. If the remaining justices recuse in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety, the Republicans will challenge any replacement judges on same grounds until they find judges that they feel will rule in their favor. On the other hand, if the justices decline to recuse themselves, they will face continued allegations of bias and impropriety, and will come under heavy political pressure to allow the subpoena to go forward.

Never mind that the allegations of impropriety appear to have absolutely no merit. None of the six justices on the court have spoken in any official public capacity about the subpoenas or the pending legislation. But that is beside the point: the real purpose of the recusal motion is to turn public opinion against the courts by painting the judiciary as hopelessly biased.

There is a way out of this trap, but it will require several careful steps.

Continue reading “Montana Republicans increase political pressure on state supreme court”

More fallout from a heated Florida judicial election

In March, I flagged a story about Palm Beach County Judge Dana Santino, who was elected last November after running a particularly ugly campaign against his opponent, Gregg Lerman.  Judge Santino ran ads suggesting that Lerman, a defense attorney, represents “murders, rapists, child molesters, and other criminals.” She was subsequently investigated by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission, and admitted to violating two canons of judicial ethics. The Commission has yet to issue a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court about Judge Santino’s punishment, if any.

In the meantime, there has been an interesting ripple effect. It turns out that before her own election, Judge Santino briefly served as a campaign manager to another Palm Beach County judge, Circuit Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo. In light of this fact, Gregg Lerman (Santino’s former opponent) asked Judge Caracuzzo to recuse herself from all cases in which he was representing a party. Judge Caracuzzo agreed.

Although requested by Lerman, the recusal now makes things more complicated for his practice. There are fewer judges available to his clients, which may lead to more delays in the administration of justice.

All involved insist that there are no hard feelings about the earlier campaign. But judicial elections have these sort of ancillary (and ultimately predictable) effects. At minimum, a lawyer in Mr. Lerman’s shoes might think twice before seeking a judicial position in the future.

 

Florida: judges can be friends with lawyers on Facebook, because Facebook “friends” aren’t necessarily real friends

I reported last month on a motion to disqualify a Florida state judge from presiding over a case after it was learned that she was Facebook friends with opposing counsel.  The twist on the case was that the counsel in question had previously been a judge himself, and the Facebook connection dated back to a time when both judge and counsel were on the bench.

On Wednesday, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal issued a ten-page order, concluding that disqualification was not necessary.  The key language:

We agree with the Fifth District that “[a] Facebook friendship does not necessarily signify the existence of a close relationship.”  We do so for three reasons.  First, as the Kentucky Supreme Court noted, “some people have thousands of Facebook ‘friends.’…

Second, Facebook members often cannot recall every person they have accepted as “friends” or who have accepted them as “friends.”  In a recent case, a student, who had over one thousand Facebook “friends,” did not know he was a Facebook “friend” with another student he was accused of assaulting….

Third many Facebook “friends” are selected based on Facebook’s datamining technology rather than personal interactions.  Facebook data-mines its members’ current list of “friends,” uploaded contact lists from smart phones and computers, emails, names tagged in uploaded photographs, internet groups, networks such as schools and employers, and other publicly or privately available information.  This information is analyzed by proprietary algorithms that predict associations. Facebook then suggests there “People You May Know” as potential “friends.”

This is a thoughtful and sensible opinion, and the pervasive use of scare quotes around the term “friend” is a telling indictment of how distant our human relationships have grown in an age of social media.