Today’s COVID responses can improve tomorrow’s judicial performance evaluations

That’s the main thrust of my latest guest post at the IAALS blog. Forced to adopt a wide range of technological resources during the pandemic, courts systems are now better situated to use that technology to improve surveys, observe judicial behavior, and communicate wih the public.

Tillman on transparency of court records in Ireland

My law school classmate Seth Barrett Tillman, who has become a prominent voice in the legal academy on both sides of the Atlantic, has proposed a series of transparency reforms for the Irish courts.

The proposal includes open access to the parties’ briefs and filings, and a searchable database of notices of appeal.

These are worthwhile ideas, and demonstrate how a relatively modest investment in technology can pay significant dividends for access to justice and public confidence in the courts.

Colorado’s Chief Justice on court operations, judicial selection, and experiential diversity

The Colorado Springs Gazette has a terrific short interview with the state’s Chief Justice, Brian Boatright, on a wide variety of issues related to court operations and interdependence. Here is a taste:

[Q]: Is there any change during the COVID-19 era that you believe the Supreme Court couls permanently incorporate into its work post-pandemic?

Boatright: I believe that we will incorporate the practice of allowing attorneys to make oral argument remotely in certain circumstances. The pandemic has taught us that oral arguments can be efficient and effective wheh done virtually. I expect that attorneys who previously has to travel significant distances to present their arguments will want to take advantage of that option. Hopefully, that flexibility will reduce costs for their clients.

Chief Justice Boatright also discusses experiential diversity on the court, the role of collegiality, and the benefits of Colorado’s judicial selection system. It’s well worth a full read.

 

Arizona courts adopt new platform for handling digital evidence

The Arizona court system is adopting a modern digital platform to help streamline virtual hearings, according to this story in Government Technology. The platform will include a digital evidence center capable of holding all relevant digital evidence — from police body cam footage to data collected from smartphones — in a single place. The platform will also allow digital evidence to be collected, digitized, and shared remotely.

Chief Justice issues 2020 Year End Report

Per longstanding tradition, while you were anxiously coaxing 2020 into oblivion last night, the Chief Justice quietly issued his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Also per tradition, this year’s report features more musty anecdotes about the courts, this time focused (predictably) on pandemics. The Chief Justice congratulates the entire court system on its turn to video hearings and trials in the wake of the COVID-19 spread.

Kudos are indeed in order for reacting relatively swiftly, but I will save my formal congratulations for when the federal courts embrace technology with foresight and a commitment to transparency. Here’s an area where the federal courts could learn much from their state counterparts, if they are willing.

Making sense of the new PACER bill

There is plenty of room for constructive compromise, but it requires everyone to acknowledge that “free” PACER is not actually free.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Open Courts Act of 2020, H.R. 8235, by a voice vote. The bill would radically reform access to federal court records by requiring (among other things) that the courts’ PACER system be modernized and its contents made free to the public. The bill drew praise from open courts advocates, and furious pushback from the Judicial Conference and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). Indeed, the Judicial Conference’s reaction was probably the most vigorous response I have seen from the courts in many years.

It is a rare piece of legislation these days that can simultaneously garner bipartisan support and solicit institutional panic from the judicial branch. So it’s worth examining closely. What we find is an opportunity for the court system to improve its transparency and its own performance, albeit not on the schedule or in the manner it would prefer. Continue reading “Making sense of the new PACER bill”

Illinois approves notification of court dates by text message

Another misleading headline: Illinois Supreme Court approves new rule allowing for an expansion of text messaging in courts.

No, people are not actually allowed to send text messages while in court. Rather, the new rule permits individual court administrators in Illinois to implement text message notification programs. The primary goal seems to be getting people to show up for their court dates.

Text messaging programs are a supplement and not a substitute for any notification required by Supreme Court Rule and any failure to participate in a text messaging program will not be considered or used as evidence against the person in any court proceeding.

Participants will be afforded the ability to opt out of the program at any time.

The phone information provided and collected for the purpose of inclusion in a text message notification program under the new Rule will not be made part of the official public court record and shall not be utilized for any other purpose.

An eminently sensible change.

Some Georgia courts to broadcast live trials — sort of

I got excited when I saw the headline from a Columbus, Georgia television station: City of Columbus purchasing courtroom cameras to allow public to watch jury trials. After all, one major lesson from the coronavirus pandemic has been that the presence of cameras in the courtroom is far less disruptive than some believe. To be sure, one needs to be cautious about protecting privacy and due process, but those values can coexist comfortably with video technology.

But it turns out that the Georgia court cameras will only broadcast trials into the next room, not out to the public in general. This artificially limits the number of people who can view the trials, learn about the court system, and see it in action.

It’s good, of course, that the courts are at least opening trials again for public view — and cameras are the only safe way to open courtrooms to the general public for as long as the pandemic lasts. But this strikes me as a missed opportunity to bootstrap a transparency measure and turn it into a much larger positive for the courts and the public.

Federal Circuit affirms PACER fee decision

After a two-and-a-half year wait, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the decision of Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in National Veterans Legal Services et al. v. United States. The plaintiffs in that case argued that the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts exceeded their statutory authorization by using PACER fees to fund internal court projects that were unrelated to the administration of the PACER system itself. (PACER is part of the federal courts’ electronic filing system, which allows the public to access most documents that are filed for a 10 cent/page fee.) The government argued that funding the additional projects did not exceed the court’s authority.

In March 2018, on cross-motions for summary judgment, Judge Huvelle split the difference, concluding as a matter of statutory interpretation that the courts had properly used PACER fees to fund certain projects–including the development of the electronci filing system itself–but had overstepped its bounds in using funds to provide electronic notice to jurors, assist with state court records in Mississippi, and other tangential projects. (I previosuly explored Judge Huvelle’s opinion, and the policies underlying the larger question of PACER fees, here.)

The Federal Circuit concluded that Judge Huvelle’s opinion “got it just right.” But it also added its own gloss on the relationship between the courts and the other branches of government, as seen through the lens of PACER revenue. Continue reading “Federal Circuit affirms PACER fee decision”

Pandemic-induced court changes will remain long-term

Several courts are beginning to announce that technological changes made at the start of the coronavirus pandemic will remain for the foreseeable future. Top judicial leaders in many states have concluded that “Zoom courts are here to stay,” and are working to update their infrastructure. In addition, Ohio will continue holding webinars in lieu of court-mandated live parenting classes, and will improve the tech connection between courthouses and county jails. Meanwhile, Maine has issued official guidance for those who want to watch remote hearings, and is seeking federal funds to further update its technological capabilities.

I generally detest the philosophy of “never let a crisis go to waste,” which too often exploits catastrophes to satisfy a partisan wish list. But this is something far more organic, and the American courts will come out of this pandemic stronger and more flexible for having survived this technological trial by fire.