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.

Judge denies stay of injunction in Cook County records case; defendants appeal to the Seventh Circuit

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.

Pennsylvania court will have to operate with only two full-time judges

Effective Monday, the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County, Pennsylvania will be down to two full-time judges.  One of those judges, Robert G. Yeatts, recently assured the public that courts will stay open for business, using retired judges to “run the courts as much as possible.”

Fortunately, the state politicians responsible for filling the seats seem aware of the problem and plan to add new judges as soon as possible.  But this story beings into sharp relief the courts’ dependence on others for their most basic resources.

 

More learning curves with state court e-filing

Luzerne County, Pennsylvania is the latest court to transition to electronic filing, and it is finding the same immediate advantages, and the same growing pains, as other state courts around the country. On the plus side, e-filing is easier for attorneys who will no longer have to trek to the courthouse to file or review documents. It will also be easier (and cheaper) for the court system, which will move to a state-run electronic records management system. But the transition may make it harder for media to access information on recent filings. A similar problem led one media outlet to file a lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts earlier this year, citing First Amendment and transparency concerns.