State legislators are trying to politicize their judiciaries for short-term gain. Courts, their users, and the public must speak up to stop them.
The first weeks of the 2021 legislative session have seen an extraordinary number of proposals to overhaul the selection of judges or otherwise affect the composition of state judiciaries. Among them:
In Montana, Senate Bill 140 would eliminate the state’s judicial nominating commission, giving the governor direct appointment power over district court judges and state supreme court justices. The nominating commission, in place for nearly half a century, was expressly implemented to depoliticize the judicial appointment process. Despite an outpouring of criticism for the proposal, which is widely seen as a partisan gambit by new Governor Greg Gianforte and Republican legislators, the bill passed the legislature last week. If signed by the governor, the bill would make Montana a national outlier in its refusal to use an independent nominating commission.
In Alaska, a very similar bill would eliminate the role of the state’s nominating commission for the appointment of judges on the district courts and state court of appeals. Senate Bill 14 was introduced by Republican senator Mike Shower in late January. As in Montana, the bill has been panned as “a concerted strategy to dismantle Alaska’s system of selecting judges based on merit and replace it with a process that relies primarily on politics.” Alaska’s Chief Justice, Joel Bolger, similarly criticized the bill as undermining a well-established and respected judicial selection process. Continue reading “State courts come under legislative assault”
The Tennessee courts have launched a podcast entitled “Tennessee Court Talk,” which can be found at the courts’ main website, tncourts.gov.
“The TNcourts.gov website receives nearly six million hits each year, and those hits are very focused on legal research regarding how the courts work, court rules and procedures, and recent cases,” said Barbara Peck, communications director for the Tennessee Supreme Court and Administrative Office of the Courts.
This is a great idea, and I’ll be watching (and listening) to see how it develops.
The Indianapolis Star has published an interesting op-ed from Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Tennessee State Court Administrator Deborah Taylor Tate, exploring (at a high level) how the national opioid epidemic has affected state courts. A snippet:
[O]ne fact remains: the state court justice system is now the primary referral source for addiction treatment in the country.
This reality has put enormous strain on our nation’s state courts, many of which have been overwhelmed by growing dockets and shrinking resources. In a recent survey of chief justices and state court administrators, 55 percent ranked the opioid epidemic’s impact on the courts as severe. The survey results are unsurprising, given the complexity of opioid cases: it takes an enormous amount of time to figure out what’s best for people who are addicted, how to care for their children, and what resources are available for them. And those who are placed in a treatment program with court oversight may remain involved with the court for years.
The courts are often the place of last resort for problems facing society, and have no choice but to address those problems creatively and (usually) with limited budgets. The opioid crisis is certainly playing out that way.
Tennessee uses a version of the Missouri Plan to select its state appellate judges. Known (unsurprisingly) as the Tennessee Plan, it calls for an independent nominating commission to present a slate of qualified candidates to the governor, who must appoint a judge from that slate. (This is akin to most merit selection plans around the country.) The judges then stand for retention elections.
Trial court vacancies are filled using a similar process. A nominating commission (whose members are appointed by the legislature) presents a slate of names to the governor within 60 days of a judicial vacancy, and the governor must choose a new judge from that slate.
Under the current system, legislators no direct role in filling judicial vacancies, but a bill working its way through the state legislature is aiming to change that. For new trial judges, House Bill 1257 would require the governor to provide a written notice of appointment to the clerk of each legislative chamber, which would trigger a 60-day period for each chamber to confirm the nominee. If both the Senate and House reject the nominee, or if even one chamber rejects the nominee by a two-thirds majority, the appointment would fail. If neither of these things happens within 60 days, however, the appointment would be deemed valid.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the legislature wanting to have a say in judicial appointments, but in the absence of a pressing concern about the current process, it’s hard to see why this is a good idea. The use of an independent commission is already designed to cut down the risks of partisanship or patronage, and to ensure qualified candidates. And because a nominee may not take the bench under this bill until legislative confirmation or the passage of sixty days after nomination, the judiciary would be left with longer periods of unfilled vacancies.
The bill has only worked its way through the House Judiciary Subcommittee, and has a long road to travel before becoming law. But it’s hard to see why this idea is particularly wise, necessary, or beneficial to those who rely on Tennessee courts to be efficient and effective.
A task force appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court has recommended significant changes to the state’s program to provide attorneys for those who cannot afford them, and the court itself has resolved to act on those recommendations.
The Chattanoogan reports:
One key change is an increase in the amount attorneys are paid to work on such cases, a compensation rate that has not changed in 20 years. The Court will seek funding to increase the rates to $65 per hour, from the current $40 per hour for work outside court and $50 hourly for time spent in court. Additionally, current rules “cap” compensation on most cases at $1,000 or $1,500. The Court will request an appropriation in next year’s budget to raise the caps by $500 on all felonies and by $250 on juvenile matters.
Additionally, the Court is endorsing the recommendations to establish an appellate division of the public defenders’ offices to handle all appeals involving those offices, as well as to establish a conflicts division to facilitate representation of more indigent defendants by public defenders in lieu of private attorneys being appointed to the cases.
The entire Task Force report can be found here.
Increasingly, state court systems are following the lead of the federal courts and placing their case files online, where they can be easily accessed by the public. The latest court system to announce a move is Hamilton County, Tennessee. Don’t go looking for information just yet: there are still a number of bureaucratic hoops to jump through before digitized information becomes available. But this is a good trend.
President Trump nominated eleven people to federal district judgeships yesterday, covering districts in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Once again, I am struck by the nominees’ breadth of experience. The group of eleven includes five attorneys in private practice, three state court judges, one United States Magistrate Judge, one law professor, and one state legislator. Several of the nominees have practice experience in both the government and the private sector.
As a general matter, I have been very impressed with the quality of judicial nominees coming from the administration. Hopefully Congress will hold swift confirmation hearings on the nominees and begin to cure the severe vacancy crisis in our federal district courts.
The Chief Justices of six states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee — recently signed a charter to support a Regional Opioid Initiative already in place in those states. The courts’ commitment to the initiative recognizes that the epidemic crosses state borders and is most usefully addressed with a high level of cross-state cooperation. It also recognizes the key role of state judiciaries in combatting the epidemic.