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”

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.

Texas judges disciplined for mutual election endorsements

Two Dallas-area judges have been disciplined by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for endorsing each other’s bid for reelection this past fall.

The commission issued two public warnings to both Kim Cooks, judge of the 255th District Court, which handles family law, and Andrea Martin, judge of the 304th District Court, which handles juvenile law.

According to their warnings, during their 2018 campaigns for re-election, Cooks and Martin produced and distributed a campaign mailer that featured their names, titles and likenesses, urging voters to vote for each of them for their respective judicial races. The mailer included statements such as “Keep this talented team working for our families and for our children.”

Cooks and Martin also produced two campaign videos and posted them on social media in which they ask voters to support both of them in their reelection efforts. In one of the videos, the judges state: “We are your Dallas County Judges, your people’s judges. We are the community judges. And we need your help.”

Cooks and Martin also told the commission that they jointly hosted a fundraising event, at which separate tables were set up for each campaign. They also stated that their individual campaigns shared equally in the costs associated with the mailer, the videos and the fundraising event.

The judges pled innocent ignorance, stating that campaign behavior was not covered at new judges school. But that’s a poor excuse, and hardly demonstrates the sensible judgment that one expects of an impartial jurist.

Post-election judicial roundup

Many states had judges and issues affecting the judiciary on their ballots this week. Here are some of the more noteworthy outcomes from several western states:

In California, state supreme court Associate Justice Carol Corrigan was retained by voters by about a 2-1 margin. Corrigan had been the target of an anti-retention campaign by several LGBT groups, who took issue with her dissent in the state supreme court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2008. Happily, most voters (regardless of how they felt about that case) properly viewed that opinion in the context of hundreds that Justice Corrigan has issued over her judicial career.

In Alaska, Judge Michael Corey was not nearly as lucky. In a situation reminiscent of the mob that removed Judge Aaron Persky in California earlier this year, Judge Corey was targeted for non-retention by a group calling itself “No More Free Passes.” The group took issue with Judge Corey’s decision to approve a “no jail time” plea deal for a man accused of strangling a woman until she fell unconscious, and then masturbating on her. The problem for the prosecutors and for Judge Corey was that this sickening act does not qualify as a sex crime under Alaska law. Consistent with existing law, the district attorney proposed a plea deal that allowed the defendant to walk away without jail time, and Judge Corey approved it.

It’s not hard to see why this decision would raise anger about the state of the law, and mobilize people to change it. But instead, Judge Corey became the target, and “No More Free Passes” ran a successful social media campaign to prevent his retention. This despite his excellent performance review (which was issued before the plea deal was approved).

The leader of “No More Free Passes” admitted that its removal of Judge Corey was largely symbolic, and that its main focus was on changing the law. In a Facebook post, she stated that the group “will no longer be discussing Mr. Corey…. We wish him nothing but the best in his future.” That is cold comfort for an excellent judge whose only fault was following the law. Congratulations to “No More Free Passes” on destroying a judge’s career purely as an act of symbolism. I hope you sleep well at night.

In Colorado, voters narrowly defeated Amendment W, which would have streamlined the judicial retention ballot in future elections. A majority of voters supported the amendment, but “yes” votes did not meet the 55% supermajority threshold required for passage.

Out of more than 100 judges on the Colorado retention ballot, two were not retained by voters. Both judges had received poor performance evaluations from Colorado’s official JPE program.  Several other judges were targeted by anti-retention groups or individuals, but  had received strong performance evaluations and were comfortably retained by voters.

In New Mexico, which uses a mixed judicial selection system (judges must initially run for their seats in contested elections, and afterward face retention), voters radically overhauled the state court of appeals. Four new judges were elected–all women, and all Democrats–giving women eight of the ten seats on the court. Another court of appeals judge, Michael Vigil, left his seat to run for the state supreme court, and handily defeated incumbent Gary Clingman. Vigil’s seat will be filled by gubernatorial appointment. The only male judge left on the court, Judge J. Miles Hanisee, was retained by a comfortable margin.

New Mexico voters were also asked to “clear the bench” of judges by an anonymous group starting early this year. While the movement had little impact on the state’s appellate and district courts, four Metropolitan Court judges failed to reach the 57% threshold for retention. Of the four who were not retained, two were not recommended for retention by the state’s judicial performance evaluation commission. Two other judges who likewise were not recommended for retention just squeaked over the retention threshold, with 57.15% and 57.02% of the vote, respectively.

In Arizona, state supreme court Justice Clint Bollick was comfortably retained by voters despite an anti-retention effort funded by the National Education Association.

And in Texas, one of only two states that permits voters to simply vote a straight party ticket, a Democratic wave unseated nineteen incumbent Republican judges on the state’s  intermediate appellate courts. This party sweep (which is not uncommon in Texas) will lead to two related consequences for the appellate courts. First, a number of highly experienced judges are now out of a job. Second, the learning curve for the new judges will take time. I do not envy anyone with cases pending in those courts over the next several months, as an entirely new judiciary gets it feet wet.

UPDATE 11/16/18: The post has been revised to reflect the Colorado supermajority requirement for Amendment W.