Cybersecurity breach affected federal courts

The SolarWinds cybersecurity breach that affected several federal agencies and private tech companies last month apparently also infiltrated the federal court system, according to reports. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts yesterday announced additional safeguards to protect sensitive court records. According to the AO’s press release,

Under the new procedures announced today, highly sensitive court documents (HSDs) filed with federal courts will be accepted for filing in paper form or via a secure electronic device, such as a thumb drive, and stored in a secure stand-alone computer system. These sealed HSDs will not be uploaded to CM/ECF. This new practice will not change current policies regarding public access to court records, since sealed records are confidential and currently are not available to the public.

Shades of the cyberattack that hit the Texas courts earlier this year. That involved ransomware, but it equally exposed the courts’ vulnerabilities involving modern technology

Texas commission recommends move to nonpartisan judicial elections

The fifteen-member Texas Commission on Judicial Selection has issued a formal report recommending that the state move away from partisan judicial elections in favor of nonpartisan elections. A bar majority of the commission members — eight — supported the change. But since most dissenters are state legislators, it seems unlikely that the commission’s recommendations will be followed anytime soon.

The Texas Tribune has an excellent summary and analysis here. A snippet:

“I do not believe the citizens, my constituents of the state of Texas, want this right taken away from them, and I’m not gonna be in a position or be the one who does that,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said at the committee’s final meeting in December. Huffman, who served as a trial judge in Houston, and said the experience of campaigning for the bench had been valuable.

The counterargument to that came most persuasively from former judges, who have been pointing out for years that while Texans say they cherish their ability to elect judges, they typically have little idea who they’re choosing between.

In Houston, for example, there are dozens of judges on the ballot, lists long enough that even top local attorneys struggle to familiarize themselves with every candidate.

In the absence of better information, voters often turn to the demographic clues they can glean from the ballot itself. In this year’s Democratic judicial primaries, for example, female candidates got more votes than male candidates in every gender-split race, about 30. And in Republican primaries, judicial candidates with Hispanic-sounding surnames have often fared poorly, owing, experts say, to a largely white electorate.

“Judges can be elected even though no one knows who they are,” pointed out Wallace Jefferson, who was the first Black chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. Instead of vetting the qualifications of the judicial hopefuls they are choosing between, he said, voters often choose based on party affiliation, “or they vote based on the sound of your name.”

 

Election 2020: a quick state court roundup

Even with all eyes trained on the Presidential election, voters in more than thirty states also cast ballots this week for (or against) state judges. Here are some of the preliminary stories coming out of Election Day:

In both Dallas County and Harris County, Texas, Democrats swept the contested judicial races, making it yet another election cycle in which a single party has taken control of the state judiciary in Texas’s two largest metro areas. In North Carolina, a party sweep of another type took place, with Republican judicial candidates winning each of their judicial races. Neither case should be seen as good news. Party sweeps strip the courts of critical judicial experience, replacing it only with a partisan fetish that a judge with an (R) or a (D) next to his name will rule in a certain way. If the judges are fair, the partisans are more often than not disappointed by some case outcomes. And if the judges give the partisans what they want every time, the integrity of the judiciary is compromised. (Just a thought: perhaps it is finally time to eliminate partisan judicial elections altogether.)

In Illinois, for the first time, a sitting supreme court justice lost his retention bid. A little less than 57% of voters chose to retain Justice Thomas Kilbride, but under the state’s unique rules, at least 60% of voters needed to favor retention for Kilbride to keep his seat. Thus we have the unusual circumstance in which a judge whom most voters wanted to retain nevertheless will have to leave the bench. (The unusual nature of Illinois’s judicial retention system has an equally unusual history, which I might try to unpack in a future blog post.)

In Tampa, Florida, a state trial judge who lost his primary race in August pushed the state supreme court not to certify this week’s judicial election results. The judge is arguing that the current state law allows judicial races to be settled in the primaries, whereas the state constitution requires that they be decided during the November general election.

And in Arizona (where ballots are still being counted as of this writing), the Maricopa County Democratic Party campaigned against the retention of two state trial judges, including the only Native American judge on the Maricopa County Superior Court. Both targeted judges were deemed by the state’s independent Commission on Judicial Performance Review to have met performance standards. Unlike Illinois, a simple majority in favor of retention is enough to keep the judges on the bench.

The challenge of reopening courts

A number of recent news stories have emphasized the reluctance of many white-collar workers to go back to the office, even when their places of business are authorized to reopen. Extensive safety precautions, combined with the ability of many employees to work effectively from home, has even led some to proclaim the death of the modern office.

As admirable a job as courts have done with videoconferencing during the coronavirus pandemic, they do not have the same luxury of transitioning everyone to a long-term work-from-home arrangement. And so courts are reopening around the country. And they are finding difficult challenges in front of them. Safety and social distancing guidelines means that there is less space for observers and unsettled questions about enforcement of safety norms. Returning judges and attorneys are also facing heavily backlogged dockets and the further postponement of trials and hearings. It will require patience and creativity to get things back on an even keel.

Face mask requirements pose a new challenge as courts reopen

Courthouses around the country are slowly reopening, with a panoply of health and social distancing guidelines. One of the most basic rules is that everyone in the courthouse must wear a face mask — a wholly sensible approach from a public health perspective. But mandatory face coverings also pose interesting new challenges for lawyers, judges, and juries, because of our reliance on facial expressions to assess emotion and credibility.

Courts are awakening to the problem, and trying to develop creative ways to permit certain participants to uncover their faces while protecting public health. One possible solution is to conduct voir dire by videoconference.  Another is to cover witness and jury boxes with clear plexiglass, an admittedly second-best solution. As one Texas judge noted,

in Harris County, the courts are already installing plexiglass to protect the clerks, court reporters and bailiffs, who sit in high-traffic areas of courtrooms.

“I joke our courtrooms are going to look like a hockey rink,” he said. “We’re not putting plexiglass up around the jury box, because we haven’t figured out how we are going to conduct the jury trials. This is an issue that’s causing a lot of concern, because people sitting in the jury box are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Whatever the solution, the courtrooms will certainly feel different for a while.

Texas holds first Zoom jury trial

Yesterday, Texas held the first jury trial to be conducted exclusively through Zoom videoconferencing. The one-day summary jury trial was also livestreamed on YouTube.

This represents a major development, given that every other jurisdiction has simply postponed jury trials until courthouses reopen.  And judges are increasingly opening to the idea of remote trials in some form. On the other hand, some judges remain steadfastly opposed to trials outside the physical courtroom, and with courthouses beginning to reopen in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen how common videoconference trials will become.

Texas court system suffers ransomware attack

Last week, the Texas appeals courts and judicial agencies suffered a ransomware attack that disabled their IT network for several days. The situation was caught quickly and state court administrators created a temporary website. Officials have stressed that no personal information was stolen, and that the attack had no effect on the courts’ use of online hearings in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia’s state courts experienced a similar ransomware attack last July.

Although no harm seems to have come out of this latest incident, it does underscore the vulnerability of technological networks and the potential effect on the administration of justice.

Texas court orders new judicial election after ballot error

A Texas state judge has ordered a new election for the Seventh Court of Appeals, after Republican primary candidates were left off the ballot in two counties last month. The successful challenge was brought by incumbent Larry Doss, who lost the primary.

Amarillo attorney Steven Denny, who was originally the winner based on the March 3 results, said he was disappointed with the results but understood the court’s reasoning. Denny also said he is concerned about how the rescheduled date could disenfranchise voters who cast ballots in the original elections.

“Although 1,200 voters in those two counties did not get a vote on this particular race, it is entirely likely with the dismal turnout in runoff elections compounded with the COVID-19 scare that we could have fewer than 10,000 voters in the new election, which would disenfranchise the other 80,000 that voted in the original election,” Denny said.

With Wisconsin proceeding with its state primary today after an unsuccessful legal challenge to postpone in light of the COVID-19 crisis, it will be interesting to see how states and localities thread the needle of public health and election participation.

On terrible judicial optics

Over the weekend, Texas state judge Sarah Eckhardt was forced to apologize after a reporter caught her publicly mocking the disability of the state’s governor, Greg Abbott. Eckhardt made her comment while participating on a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. The Federalist reports:

At a panel on leftist activism in cities, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was railing against the Texas legislature, complaining about how the state is constantly thwarting municipal policy. The Republicans running state government, she said, just want to stop whatever good things the cities are doing—whether it’s plastic bag bans, fracking bans, even local tree ordinances!

Then she said, “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd laughed.

As all Texans know, Abbott was paralyzed from the waist down at age 26 when a tree fell on him while he was jogging on a windy day in Houston in 1984. He has used a wheelchair ever since.

Eckhardt’s comment was incredibly crude, even by our low modern standards, and she was right to apologize. But what was she doing at the Tribune Festival in the first place? It is an environment steeped in rough-and-tumble politics: this year’s speakers included Nancy Pelosi, Ted Cruz, Susan Rice, Julian Castro, and Anthony Scaramucci, among others. The panel on which Judge Eckhardt participated was entitled “Civic Enragement” and its description read: “How progressive politics are turning citizens into warriors and cities into battlegrounds.” Her co-panelists were all politicians; the moderator, a columnist for Vox.

This is no place for a judge to be. Of course, judges have their own political leanings, and in Texas they wear their party affiliations on their sleeves. But what message does it send to the public when a judge so plainly aligns herself with partisan politics and partisan ideology? How could anyone who openly disagrees with her politics ever hope to get a fair hearing in her courtroom? Even leaving aside her sophomoric joke about the governor, Judge Eckhardt has permanently stained any chance to build a reputation as an impartial jurist.

Judges have to make sacrifices when they don the robe, including avoiding activities that they might otherwise enjoy. This is not always fair, but it is necessary, as this sorry episode makes clear.

Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook

William “Bill” McLeod, a well-respected Houston-area trial judge, was contemplating running for the Texas Supreme Court in the 2020 general election. Earlier this month, he stated as much on his Facebook page, unaware that such a declaration triggered an automatic resignation from his current position under Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution.

Harris and his supporters appealed the automatic removal, but this week Harris County commissioners voted 4-1 to uphold the resignation. It appears to have been a difficult decision, given that McLeod was a popular and experienced judge who won a sizable majority in the last election.

Still, there were important countervailing considerations: Continue reading “Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook”