Party politics and judicial nominations in Michigan

The Detroit News has a fascinating and distressing story about how partisan politics are influencing judicial nominations in three different Michigan courts, covering both the federal and state levels of the judiciary.

Briefly, the state has two federal district court vacancies, one in the Western District of Michigan and one in the Eastern District. The vacancies have been difficult to fill because the Senate’s “blue slip” process essentially allows the state’s two Democratic senators to block the confirmations of any Trump nominees that they do not like. In light of this reality, state Republicans and Democrats worked out a compromise: the seat in the Eastern District would be filled by current Magistrate Judge Stephanie Davis, and the seat on in the Western District would be filled by a nominee supported by the Republican establishment. The plan would have made Davis the first African-American woman nominated to the federal bench by President Trump.

The pact fell apart, however, after Trump’s Western District nominee, Michael Bogren, lost the confidence of Senate Republicans. State Republicans scrambled to find a new nominee, and seemed to have landed on state appeals court judge Brock Swartzel. In the meantime, the Davis nomination was frozen in its tracks.

Then, out of nowhere, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra offered himself up as a nominee for the Western District vacancy. Zahra is a Republican (judges run for the bench with party affiliations in Michigan), and pledged to resign from the state supreme court if Trump nominated him and the state’s Senators agreed not to oppose his nomination. The move would allow a Democrat to be appointed to the state supreme court in his place, tipping the partisan balance of that court toward the Dems.

The article calls the proposal “a neat package” which, among other things, would allow Zahra to collect a federal salary as well as a state pension. But the partisan brazenness of the proposal is appalling, at least to this blogger. How could Zahra even pretend to be impartial if he was placed in the federal bench? And what role does he see for party affiliation on the trial bench, typically the least politicized aspect of the judiciary?

It is an increasingly popular take among partisans on both sides to criticize the judiciary as politicized and biased. Those concerns start with the judicial selection process, in which the very same partisans exert their dismal control.

Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe Judge Joan Larsen, of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to be a prime candidate to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy should another seat open up during the Trump Administration. Late last year, Judge Larsen delivered the Sumner Canary Memorial Lecture at Case Western Reserve Law School in Ohio, and that school’s law review has just published her remarks.

The lecture is a short and valuable exposition on the often nuanced relationship between state and federal courts–something Judge Larsen knows well. I highly recommend the entire piece to the reader. But a couple of points she made struck me as particularly interesting from an organizational perspective.

Continue reading “Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System”

Supreme Judicial Court reverses course on suspension of Judge Joseph

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

The tensions between state and federal authorities resulting from the Trump administration’s immigration policies are evident in debates over a proposed southern border wall, sanctuary cities and, in Massachusetts, the indictment of District Court Judge Shelley M. Joseph on obstruction of justice charges. An April 25, 2019 grand jury indictment alleges misconduct in her courtroom involving Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials and immigrants who had been held in state custody. While the federal criminal process moves forward in the wake of Joseph’s not-guilty plea, the federalism and state sovereignty issues have featured in a separate proceeding concerning her initial suspension without pay by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in an order issued the same day as the grand jury indictment.

The SJC based its initial order “solely on the fact that [Judge Joseph] had been indicted for alleged misconduct in the performance of her judicial duties.” Joseph subsequently sought partial reconsideration, arguing that she should be suspended with pay, rather than without; and that she should be suspended only from her judicial duties. Following a nonevidentiary hearing, the SJC issued a revised order on August 13: a majority of the justices concluded that suspension with pay was appropriate in the unique circumstances of the case, and denied Joseph’s request to be assigned administrative duties.

The court was right to grant reconsideration and reverse course on the question whether Joseph should be paid during her suspension. It initially imposed suspension without pay absent any inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the federal indictment, relying for guidance on precedent as well as the Massachusetts Trial Court personnel policy and state statutes. Past suspensions notably had been imposed following findings indicating circumstances in which discipline was appropriate. As for the Trial Court policy, it provides that “[a]n employee who is indicted for misconduct in office … shall be suspended without pay until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings,” while Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30, Section 59, and Chapter 268A, Section 25 authorize the suspension of state officers and employees during any period they are under indictment for misconduct. These rules, as the SJC observed in Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Retirement Board, serve “to remedy the untenable situation which arises when a person who has been indicted for misconduct in office continues to perform his [or her] public duties while awaiting trial.”

Notwithstanding the laudable aim of the rules, their automatic application to a judge may be problematic—particularly when the criminal allegations involve conduct in the courtroom, as opposed to actions outside the scope of the judicial function. Here, the SJC’s initial reliance on the mere fact of the indictment as a basis for suspending Joseph obscured a legitimate concern about prosecutorial intrusion into a trial judge’s authority to control her own courtroom. That a federal prosecutor sought the indictment, moreover, potentially raises federalism and separation of powers issues. In these circumstances, some kind of pre-suspension inquiry was warranted—an inquiry that the SJC ultimately made through the hearing on Joseph’s reconsideration motion, aided by the briefs of the parties and amici on the question of whether her suspension should be with or without pay.

No doubt, the SJC’s decision to reconsider the terms of Judge Joseph’s suspension will offend many Massachusetts citizens; as Justice Frank Graziano argued in his dissent, they will see the court as according a judge special treatment by restoring her pay. But, as the concurring justices noted, the decision to suspend Joseph without pay effectively denied her the ability to mount a defense to the criminal charge against her—a charge that may well implicate both judicial independence and the sovereign authority of the state judiciary itself. By ordering suspension with pay, the SJC has given Joseph the ability to mount a vigorous defense—in the knowledge that her trial may well test the extent to which state and federal law enforcement officials can act in spaces that traditionally have been seen as beyond their reach.

Two state supreme courts converge in Texarkana

State courts do an admirable job of bringing their work into the community, and one of the more common approaches is to hold oral arguments in high schools. Setting up an argument in a school auditorium is manageable logistically, and allows students to see how the courts operate close-up.

So I particularly liked this story about the supreme courts of Arkansas and Texas traveling to Texarkana at the same time to hold hearings. The Arkansas justices held their proceedings at Arkansas High School, and the Texas justices at Texas High School, before coming together for a question-and-answer session at the city’s convention center. It shows the courts to be both thoughtful and savvy in their community outreach.

North Carolina legislature (again!) passes a law affecting judicial elections

When I started following North Carolina’s judicial election process a decade ago, it was a model for fair practices in directly electing the judiciary. Candidates ran in nonpartisan, publicly funded elections, and much of the chicanery that affects judicial elections in other states (like attack ads, targeted campaigns, and the like) was largely absent.

But sadly, the last couple of years has seen the North Carolina process turn into a clown show, as as aggressive state legislature tussles with the governor politicize the judiciary. Elections are once again partisan, and filling vacancies is ugly and political. And there is no sign of it ending anytime soon.

To wit: this week the state legislature passed a new law that appears to target a single candidate for the state supreme court. Chris Anglin is one of three candidates for an open seat on the court this fall. Anglin was registered as a Democrat until June, when he changed his party affiliation to Republican. The switch meant that two candidates would be identified as Republicans, and one as a Democrat, on the ballot.

Republican legislators, apparently concerned that the presence of two Republicans on the ballot would split the partisan vote and throw the election to the lone Democrat, hurriedly passed a bill that would remove any party designation for a candidate who switched parties less than 90 days before the election. As a result, Anglin would remain on the ballot, but without a party designation.

Republicans have couched the bill as a fair compromise to prevent the gaming of the election system. Democrats and Anglin are both crying foul. The question now is whether Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, will veto the bill.

West Virginia’s appellate court crisis

Odd things are happening on the West Virginia Supreme Court.

On February 16, Chief Justice Allen Loughry was demoted and replaced as chief by Justice Margaret Workman. The unusual move, which followed a vote by the court’s other members, was apparently precipitated by a spending scandal. The court system spent more than $360,000 on Loughry’s office space since he joined the court in 2013, including a $32,000 couch. Loughry and the state court administrator pointed fingers at each other. The administrator has since been fired. In light of the crisis, the state senate voted to assume immediate legislative oversight of the judicial branch’s budget.

Shortly before these events transpired, Loughry also undertook a massive administrative reorganization of the West Virginia court system, consolidating 27 court divisions into only six. Several court administrators lost senior positions, and at least two supreme court justices strongly opposed the move. Justice Robin Davis told a reporter:

“I voted against the Court’s most recent Administrative Office reorganization for two critical and distinct reasons…. First, there is an appalling lack of clarity in the newly structured Court Services Division because there is no longer a distinct chain of command for each of the different types of courts comprising the judiciary.

“Collapsing magistrate courts, drug courts, family courts, and circuit courts under the same umbrella of supervision will severely hamper and drastically delay response time in answering critical questions and responding to the needs of these courts.

The “purported efficiency” of streamlining the division will in fact, actually restrict citizens’ access to justice and judicial resources, she stated.

As this crisis unfolds, legislators are separately debating whether to add an intermediate court of appeals to the state judiciary. West Virginia is one of only nine states without an intermediate appellate court, meaning that all appeals must be heard by the state supreme court, or not at all. Republicans in the legislature are pushing the change, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

There are many advantages to adding an intermediate appellate court. For one, it would streamline the supreme court’s workload. It also carries the potential to lower the stakes of electing supreme court justices: if the supreme court were not the only appellate body in West Virginia, major donors would have less incentive to finance supreme court candidates. (And the historical corruption on the West Virginia Supreme Court as a direct result of election financing is well documented.) Of course, the same problem might just be manifested in the intermediate appellate court as well, but there is at least a chance for reform. Against these advantages is the cost: the tag for a new appellate court would be many millions of dollars.

It will be fascinating to see how these developments play out.  Can/will structural reform to the West Virginia courts bring an air of ethical reform as well?