The opioid crisis and the state courts

The Indianapolis Star has published an interesting op-ed from Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Tennessee State Court Administrator Deborah Taylor Tate, exploring (at a high level) how the national opioid epidemic has affected state courts. A snippet:

[O]ne fact remains: the state court justice system is now the primary referral source for addiction treatment in the country.

This reality has put enormous strain on our nation’s state courts, many of which have been overwhelmed by growing dockets and shrinking resources. In a recent survey of chief justices and state court administrators, 55 percent ranked the opioid epidemic’s impact on the courts as severe. The survey results are unsurprising, given the complexity of opioid cases: it takes an enormous amount of time to figure out what’s best for people who are addicted, how to care for their children, and what resources are available for them. And those who are placed in a treatment program with court oversight may remain involved with the court for years.

The courts are often the place of last resort for problems facing society, and have no choice but to address those problems creatively and (usually) with limited budgets. The opioid crisis is certainly playing out that way.

Maine considers tripling daily juror pay

A legislative committee in Maine has endorsed raising the daily pay of state court jurors from $15 to $50, a move which would shift the state from the nation’s bottom tier of juror pay to its top echelon. Legislators appear to understand that the current rate provides incentives to potential jurors not to show up to court. The proposed raise would require an annual outlay of an additional $1 million by fiscal 2020.

Washington judges to get a pay raise

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.

Washington state judge chases, catches criminal defendants who try to flee his courtroom

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.

On transferring judges within a court system

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.

Illinois Supreme Court orders trial judge to stop sealing all filings in high-profile murder case

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.

Iowa judge allowed attorneys to ghost write “a couple hundred” orders and opinions

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.