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.
A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.
It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.
Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”
The coronavirus crisis and consequent social distancing has spurred many courts to move their hearings to videoconference. In light of the circumstances, some courts have relaxed certain formalities for online hearings, including the donning of judicial robes. This is a sensible practice, especially since judges already take on a slightly more relaxed feel when meeting with counsel in chambers, or otherwise outside the courtroom.
But some judges in Florida are finding that stay-at-home casualness is affecting lawyers’ professionalism a bit more starkly:
Broward circuit judge Dennis Bailey described some of what they’re seeing from the bench.
“It is remarkable how many ATTORNEYS appear inappropriately on camera,” Bailey wrote in a letter posted to the Weston Bar Associated website. “We’ve seen many lawyers in casual shirts and blouses, with no concern for ill-grooming, in bedrooms with the master bed in the background, etc. One male lawyer appeared shirtless and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers.
“And putting on a beach cover-up won’t cover up you’re poolside in a bathing suit. So, please, if you don’t mind, let’s treat court hearings as court hearings, whether Zooming or not.”
It would never occur to me in a million years to stop dressing professionally for a court hearing. It’s one thing to abandon complete formality (like a robe or a suit) in unusual circumstances like these. But it’s something altogether different to choose not to wear a shirt. Good grief.
A federal district court has delayed the trial in a challenge to Alabama’s method to selecting state appellate judges. The trial, originally scheduled to begin in August, was removed from the trial list in light of complications posed by social distancing and the coronavirus.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports:
The lawsuit alleges that the state’s method of electing appellate judges dilutes the voting strength of black voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The seven Supreme Court justices are elected statewide to eight-year terms, while the 12 Appeals Court judges are elected from seven districts, five of which elect two members.
Attorneys for the state asked Moody in August to dismiss the case, arguing that “justice should not be administered on the basis of race, and Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] does not require this court to fundamentally reshape the Arkansas judiciary.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs responded that the Act was enacted for “the broad remedial purpose of ridding the country of racial discrimination in voting,” including state judicial elections.
The delay was necessitated because social distancing practices had severely hampered the parties’ ability to conduct discovery. The judge did not foreclose certain discovery practices from continuing, however, and has ordered the parties to meet electronically and work out a time frame for handing over certain election data.
A Voting Rights Act challenge to state judicial voting districts was also raised in Louisiana back in 2014, resulting a trial verdict for the plaintiffs.
Like almost every law professor in the country, I will be teaching from home for the next several weeks. It’s been a quick adjustment to become competent in online learning platforms, but we’ll make it work. Someone recently pointed out that Gen Xers like me are mentally prepared for something like this, having grown up in the waning years of the Cold War. My millennial students get props for taking all of this is stride as well. In the meantime, blogging may be a bit lighter than normal as I juggle work and family from home.
Last night, the governor of Massachusetts shut down all K-12 schools, and most restaurants and bars, until April 7. The state courts are following suit with their own precautions, trying to thread the needle between providing access to justice and protecting the larger needs of the community. The trial courts have announced a triage plan, effective this Wednesday, that will rely heavily on videoconferencing and staggered schedules. The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) entered two additional orders, one postponing all new jury trials until at least mid-April, and the other limiting access to state court facilities for anyone who is likely exposed to or carrying COVID-19.
We are in the thick of social distancing now, and these measures all make sense. It will be interesting to see how much videoconferencing and online communication with the courts is retained once things return to normal.
Los Angeles County held its judicial primaries on March 3, and one candidate took an unusual approach to attracting voters.
Candidates must list their current (or most recent) occupation in the ballot. Mike Cummins, a retired attorney, had briefly served as a judge in a smaller county in the early 2000s, but was no longer eligible to list his occupation as a judge. So he legally changed his name to Judge Mike Cummins.
The voters were not fooled. Cummins lost overwhelmingly to his opponent, Deputy DA Emily Cole.
And for those who were following the judicial hopes of former child actor Troy Slaten, alas, he too lost handily in his LA County primary this week.
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.
As the world nervously watches the spread of the coronavirus from its origins in China, court systems should be updating or preparing their own pandemic response plans. The National Center for State Courts has an excellent compilation of useful materials here.
In 2017, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators created the National Judicial Opioid Task Force to address the role of state courts in combating problems associated with opioid addiction. The Task Force has recently released its final report, which can be found here.
The four key findings of the Task Force are:
- There is a lack of access to and education about the use of quality, evidence-based treatment, including medication-based treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD)
- The most significant impact of the epidemic involves cases with children and families
- Congress and federal agencies must recognize state courts as essential partners in the response to the opioid crisis
- State courts must design programs and resources that will be effective responses to the next addiction crisis–not just opioids
I encourage you to read the whole thing for further context, and for recommendations on how state courts can respond to the crisis.
Court transparency is essential, but it cannot be one-size-fits-all proposition. Here’s why.
Several recent articles in the popular press and academic literature have grappled with the issue of transparency. Professor Scott Dodson has written about the “open-courts norm” in the United States which, “accentuated by the First Amendment,” guarantees that criminal (and in most cases, civil) proceedings are open to the public. And, channeling Homer Simpson, Professor David Pozen has described government transparency “as the cause of, and solution to, a remarkable range of problems.” Outside the academic world, organizations such as Fix the Court are issuing their own transparency report cards to draw attention to the refusal of some courts (including the U.S. Supreme Court) to broadcast oral arguments.
These commentators are on to something important. As public organizations, courts are expected to be broadly transparent about their activities. But not all forms of court transparency are the same. Some types of transparency are necessary to the courts’ survival, while other types of transparency would actually undermine the courts’ operations. It is worth considering why.
Continue reading “What is the right level of court system transparency?”