The slightly ominous-sounding Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials has approved pay raises for several state government officials, including judges. Most judges will receive an 8.5% pay hike this year, another another 2.5% raise in 2020. The raises are designed to keep state judicial compensation close to the pay scale for federal judges.
A remarkable story from Chehalis, Washington. Judge R.W. Buzzard was completing a criminal hearing when two defendants–handcuffed and wearing prison garb–decided to turn and flee the courtroom. They ran down a stairwell and attempted to escape the building. Courtroom video shows Judge Buzzard leap from the bench, pull off his robe, and give chase. Near the bottom of the stairwell, he apprehends one of the defendants (the other was caught a few blocks away).
The courthouse video is here.
The incident raises obvious questions about courthouse security:
“These things don’t happen very often,” said Sheriff Rob Snaza. “They’re few and far between.”
Snaza said this represents the second such incident within the last couple of years, that he’s aware of. There are monthly meetings to discuss courthouse security issues.
During this incident, Snaza said, security measures and quick communication made deputies aware of the incident quickly. The only deputy in the room did not give chase because he had two other inmates in his care, said Snaza.
Two remarkable, parallel stories broke this week, each involving the transfer of a state judge to another division within the court system. In Pennsylvania, Judge Lyris Younge was transferred from her longstanding seat in Philadelphia Family Court to the Court of Common Pleas Civil Division. It’s an odd move, given that Younge has almost no civil experience, and that the Civil Division is typically a landing spot for the state’s most highly competent judges. Insiders speculate that the transfer was an administrative effort to “hide” Younge in the Civil Division until an ethics probe related to her (apparently obnoxious) behavior in the Family Court is resolved.
In an eerily similar move in New York, Judge Armando Montano was reassigned from his longstanding seat on the Bronx Criminal Part to the Bronx Domestic Violence Part–a change that Judge Montano has characterized as a “disguised punishment.” Montano argues that moving him from felony cases to domestic violence cases is essentially a demotion. The court administrator disagreed, claiming that it was a “routine administrative reassignment” and that the domestic violence cases that Montano would be handling are “complex.”
The players in both stories seem to be hiding key facts here. Surely there was something specific motivating the transfer to Judge Montano, who is nearing retirement, to an entirely different division. And surely there is some internal reason for transferring Judge Younge to a division in which she has virtually no experience. And those reasons must be significant, since the outcome in both cases is worse for the litigants who are now slated to appear before the judge. Bronx DV litigants can look forward to a disgruntled Judge Montano, who believes that he is above having to rule on their cases. And Philadelphia litigants can hold their breath over Judge Younge’s competence to decide their matters–not to mention her own anger over reassignment. The judges, of course, are keeping mum about their respective behaviors that led to the reassignments.
These incidents keenly demonstrate the complexity of organizational management within a court system. Unable to completely remove judges (who, for reasons of competence, ethics, temperament, or some combination of the three) should not be on the bench, court administrators have to resort to reassignment mechanisms to reduce ongoing problems. When the issues are made public, there is often little they can say. But we can surely read between the lines.
Judge Vincent Gaughan, who is presiding over a high-profile case involving the police shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald, ordered that the attorneys for both sides file all motions and briefs directly with him. Late last week, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed with Gaughan’s policy, ordering the judge to stop requiring the sealing of all documents.
The media covering the case is understandably pleased with the ruling.
A recently retired Iowa trial judge has admitted that “a couple hundred” of his orders and opinions were ghost-written by the prevailing attorneys. Many of Judge Edward Jacobson’s requests for draft rulings were privately communicated by email.
Trial judges at all levels frequently deal with workload crunch by asking both parties to draft proposed findings and fact and conclusions of law. This is a sensible allocation of labor, since the parties and their attorneys are the most familiar with the underlying facts, and drafting orders is time-intensive. It is commonly understood among litigators that a well-drafted set of proposed findings can provide the bulk of a court’s subsequent order.
But judicial requests for proposed findings should be made on the record, in open court. Ex parte communications of the kind Judge Jacobson apparently engaged in suggest a breach of judicial ethics, or at minimum remarkable irresponsibility.
The state court administrator is investigating the matter, and has ordered that the judge’s emails be preserved for at least seven months.
Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center has a very interesting blog post on the history of state judicial impeachment. It’s worth a read.
This blog has been following a First Amendment challenge to the filing practices in the Cook County (Illinois) courts. In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Cook County was violating the First Amendment by denying the press and the public immediate access to electronically filed civil cases. In January, the federal district court agreed, and issued an injunction giving the Cook County Clerk’s Office 30 days to implement a new procedure.
That procedure has yet to be implemented, and the federal district court has twice rejected motions to stay the injunction. Now the clerk’s office has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the federal courts never should have heard the case under the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris. No word yet from the Seventh Circuit.
I have more extensive thoughts on this entire lawsuit here.