Coronavirus and the legal system in Massachusetts

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.

 

 

In LA, changing your name to “Judge Mike” won’t get you elected to the bench

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.

Judge finds a First Amendment right to access civil complaints without delay

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.

Helping courts prepare for public health emergencies

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.

National Judicial Opioid Task Force releases final report

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:

  1. 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)
  2. The most significant impact of the epidemic involves cases with children and families
  3. Congress and federal agencies must recognize state courts as essential partners in the response to the opioid crisis
  4. 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.

What is the right level of court system transparency?

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?”

More facts emerge in judicial scuffle outside Indianapolis White Castle

Last May, two Indiana state judges were shot in a violent skirmish outside a Indianapolis-area White Castle restaurant. The judges were in town for a state judicial conference, and somehow found themselves on the wrong end of a loaded gun in the early morning hours just outside the restaurant. One judge, Bradley Jacobs, has since returned to work; the other, Andrew Adams, was indicted in the incident and is facing potential judicial discipline. (He is still recovering from his injuries.)

Now more facts have come out about that fateful night. Apparently four judges in all–Adams, Jacobs, Crawford Circuit Judge Sabrina Bell, and Clark County Magistrate William Dawkins–had been involved in a night of heavy drinking, and had made it to the White Castle only after first trying to go to a gentleman’s club and learning it was closed. Dawkins went into the restaurant, and then the scene in the parking lot turned ugly. From the Indianapolis Star:

Adams, Jacobs and Bell were standing outside the restaurant when Alfredo Vazquez and Brandon Kaiser drove past the trio in a blue SUV. Either Kaiser or Vazquez yelled something out the window that prompted Bell, court documents said, to give the middle finger to the men.

Vazquez, according to the charges, then parked his SUV. After he and Kaiser exited the vehicle, a verbal altercation ensued, court documents said. It then turned violent when Adams and Jacobs moved toward Vazquez and Kaiser, the panel said.

Adams and Vazquez both hit and kicked each other, according to court documents, while Jacobs and Kaiser mostly wrestled on the ground. “At one point, Judge Jacobs was on top of Kaiser and had him contained on the ground,” the charging documents said.

Vazquez then tried to get Jacobs off of Kaiser, the panel said. As Jacobs began to get up, Vazquez started fighting him, court documents said.

After Kaiser began to sit up, Adams kicked him in the back, the panel said. Kaiser then pulled out a gun and shot Adams in the stomach, according to court documents. The panel says Kaiser then “went over to Judge Jacobs and Vazquez and fired two more shots at Judge Jacobs in the chest.” Kaiser and Vazquez then allegedly fled the scene.

When medics arrived to treat Adams and Jacobs, Adams told them he drank “a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon” that night, the panel said, adding that Adams’ blood alcohol level was .213.