U.S. Supreme Court closes in response to coronavirus threat

SCOTUSBlog reports:

Shortly after the White House and Congress announced that they would close to the public due to increasing concern over the coronavirus, the Supreme Court this afternoon followed suit. In a brief notice posted on the court’s website, the court announced that it would close to the public as of 4:30 p.m. today and would remain closed “until further notice.” However, the court indicated that its building would “remain open for official business” and that filing deadlines would not be extended.

The closure comes during what would normally be a relatively quiet period at the court: The justices wrapped up their February argument session last week and are not scheduled to hear oral arguments again until March 23. There has been no word from the court on whether the March argument session will take place as scheduled and, if so, whether members of the public will be admitted to watch the argument. Yesterday the public health department in Washington, D.C., recommended that “non-essential” gatherings of more than a thousand people be canceled as one way to fight the spread of the virus. The courtroom seats approximately 400 people.

The notice announcing the closure indicated that the Supreme Court’s building was being closed to the public because of “concern for the health and safety of the public and Supreme Court employees.” Two of the justices are in their eighties: Justice Stephen Breyer is 81, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be 87 next week. Justice Clarence Thomas is 71, while three more justices are in their sixties: Justice Samuel Alito is 69, and Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor are both 65.

Gabe Roth, the transparency advocate from Fix the Court, sees this as another argument for livestreaming. He sent out the following press release this afternoon:

Given the crowds that often gather in and around the Supreme Court, not to mention the advanced age of several of the justices, it’s the right call to close the building to the public until further notice.
That said, if this state of affairs continues through March 23 – the next time the justices hear arguments – the Court should at a minimum permit the public to listen to a livestream of argument audio from its website.
We believe the Court already has this capacity, as it streamed a Justice Scalia memorial service in Nov. 2016, and any technological gaps could be filled in by the nearby D.C. Circuit, which since Sept. 2018 has offered live online audio for all of its hearings.
Live audio is the smartest way to balance the now-competing concerns of public safety and public access.

On reforming the Supreme Court

Russell Wheeler at the Brookings Institution has taken a detailed look at the various proposals to reform the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, from court-packing to term limits. He provides a short history of each proposal (including potential legal stumbling blocks). Most importantly, he determines that at this time, the American public has no real taste for Supreme Court reform — the most significant stumbling block for any court proposal.

Wheeler concludes:

That reasonable people are even debating these proposals speaks to the degradation of the federal judicial appointment process at all levels, a decline that has been building steam for several decades. The once near-ministerial task of appointing and confirming federal judges has stretched from one or two months into sometimes year-long ordeals, even for non-controversial nominees.

Both parties have undermined the guard rails that that once pushed presidents and senators to seek judicial candidates within some broad mainstream of ideological boundaries, even allowing for occasional outliers. Democrats killed the filibuster for most nominees, and Republicans finished it off for Supreme Court candidates and, to boot, ended the home-state senator (of either party) veto of circuit nominees that Republican senators exploited relentlessly to block Obama administration appointees.

Pack-the-court proposals that would normally seem bizarre are understandable in today’s partisan climate. If the federal judiciary becomes a 21st century version of the 1930s judiciary that thwarted a popular push for change, they may even become necessary.

I don’t think we are anywhere near that level, despite the hysteria created by left-leaning partisans and academics. While Republican presidents have appointed more Justices, and while the justices serve longer, on average, than they ever did before, the leftward policy drift of many Republican appointees over time tends to keep the Court much more balanced than it might seem at the time of a Justice’s confirmation.

The battle over the Court is, in my mind, partially a spillover from the current partisan battles in the other branches and partially a reaction to the Republican Party’s successful focus on judicial appointments since the Reagan administration. When bipartisanship in Congress has eroded as badly as it has, it seems inevitable that both parties will seek to punish each other to the extent they can in the realm of judicial nominations. And the undeniable success of Republican administrations in populating the federal courts over the past forty years has left Democrats in a state of agitation, bordering on desperation.

I do not know if and when some sense of bipartisan responsibility and decorum will return to Congress. But until then, radical proposals to reform the Court are likely to constitute ongoing collateral damage.

Should Supreme Court Justices have to ride circuit?

That is the proposal advanced by Kyle Sammin at The Federalist. Sammin recognizes the folly of term limits for Supreme Court Justices, which would require the practical impossibility of a constitutional amendment. Instead, he suggests that we might promote more frequent turnover by requiring Justices to once again “ride circuit” — the 18th and 19th century practice of having Justices travel across the country to hear more ordinary cases during breaks in the Court’s regular term. Sammin states:

Restoring circuit duties to the Supreme Court would provide a natural way of decreasing tenure on the bench. Travel is not as difficult in 2019 as it was in 1819, but it can still be exhausting. If circuit riding had still been a part of the job, infirm justices such as William O. Douglas, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens would have left the bench before they were fully in decline. Ginsburg would likely have retired a decade ago, as many on the left wish she had. Instead, arrogance and ease lead to justices remaining in their jobs when they are not up to the tasks appointed to them.

I am intrigued by this proposal, although I am not as optimistic that the additional travel burden would put off any but the most frail Justices. The Court’s current members — even those well into their eighties — are already frequent travelers. They speak at law schools, promote their books, accept cozy summer teaching positions, and so on. Open Secrets, for example, found that in 2018 the Justices collectively took 64 trips that were paid for by others. Justice Ginsburg alone took a dozen trips to far-flung places around the world. And even though riding circuit would involve real judicial work rather that quasi-legal junkets, it seems fair to say that all the Justices truly enjoy their day jobs.

What do you think, readers?

More on the Supreme Court’s opacity

Perhaps building on Fix the Court’s announcement of its transparency report cards for the federal courts (the timing seems more than coincidental), the Associated Press has a story describing the areas about which the Supreme Court steadfastly declines to provide basic information about its operations to the public. Some of the examples are silly but illustrative, like refuses to name the company that installed the Court’s new drapes. Others are more serious, like the lack of courtroom cameras and limited details about judicial travel and recusal.

As I noted in a recent post, the right level of court system transparency is that which is calculated to assure the public that the courts are operating in a trustworthy manner. If the Court were more transparent about its most basic operations, it would be in a better position to justify those areas in which secrecy was truly warranted.

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?”

A dispiriting 230th birthday for the federal courts

On this day 230 years ago, President George Washington signed into law the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created our system of lower federal courts. The U.S. Constitution, ratified just a week earlier, limited its discussion of the judiciary to the Supreme Court and “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Yet Congress wasted no time creating thirteen new federal district courts (each populated by a single district judge), and three federal circuit courts, whose judges would “ride circuit” and hear cases across multiple states.

It was not a given that lower federal courts would in fact come into existence, at least not right away. In the early days of the Republic, state courts were expected to handle most cases, and a placement on the state court bench, not the federal bench, would have been the object of desire for most judicial aspirants. But the growth of federal law after the Civil War, and especially in the twentieth century, expanded the size and importance of the federal docket and  helped transform the federal courts into key players in American law, politics, and society. Last year, the federal district courts began processing almost 283,000 new cases.

Congress did not have to create the federal court system. But having done so, it has an ongoing obligation to provide the courts with the resources necessary to ensure the proper administration of justice. That means adequate funding, adequate staffing, and adequate institutional support. Lately, however, Congress has fallen short on all three counts. Continue reading “A dispiriting 230th birthday for the federal courts”

Delaware to appeal holding that its judicial appointment process violates the Constitution

Reuters has a very interesting story on the case. Briefly, in April the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that Delaware’s arrangement for picking state judges violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it effectively prevents anyone unaffiliated with one of the two major political parties from holding judicial office. The story explains:

Delaware’s constitution includes two provisions that, according to the governor’s petition, are intended to ensure the political independence of its state judiciary. One provision, known as the “bare majority” requirement, insists that no more than 50% of the judges of the Supreme, Superior and Chancery Courts be affiliated with either major political party. The other clause, dubbed the “major party” provision, requires that Delaware judges be affiliated with one of the two major parties in the state.

In combination, the constitutional provisions maintain the political equipoise of the Delaware courts. But last April, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Adams v. Governor of Delaware that the provisions violated the First Amendment right of free association of James Adams, a retired Delaware lawyer who alleged that he could not seek a judicial appointment because he is a registered independent.

The story goes on to identify several important questions raised by Delaware’s scheme. There seems to be little dispute that it has raised the reputation of the state’s courts, but at the same time it reduces judicial appointments to mere partisan politics and undermines both judicial independence and the courts’ legitimacy.

The Supreme Court has not been shy on weighing in on state judicial selection in the past, especially where First Amendment rights are implicated. It will be interesting to see if they take this case as well.