A roundup of interesting state court developments

Several interesting and important developments have taken place in state courts this past week. Among them:

  • The Chief Judge of the Hennepin County (Minnesota) District Court announced that the court has a backlog of 3,000 cases that must be resolved by 2023. Nearly 90 percent of those cases are criminal matters. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to 89 percent of all court hearings being held remotely. 
  • New Hampshire has a new state court administrator. Dianne Martin was most recently the Chair of the state’s Public Utilities Commission, and has worked in and with the state colurt system for nearly twenty years.
  • And Idaho’s state court administrator has been named in a federal lawsuit filed by Courthouse News Service, alleging that the state’s practice of posting new case filings impermissibly delays public and media access to new case information. Courthouse News Service has filed similar lawsuits against other court administrators in the past, each time alleging that the court’s default position should be to provide immediate electronic access once a matter is filed.

A tentative settlement in the PACER fee lawsuit?

Reuters reports that a settlement is brewing in the class action lawsuit alleging that the federal judiciary overcharged users for PACER access. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but after several years of litigation, including a trip to the Court of Appeals, it appears that the case may be coming to a private resolution in the next few months.

I shared thoughts on the PACER lawsuit, and the larger questions it poses for the court system, here.

Supreme Court to resume in-person arguments; live audio here to stay?

The Supreme Court has announced that it will resume in-person arguments starting in October. The number of people in the courtroom will be strictly limited.

The Court will apparently continue to provide live audio of the oral arguments, a welcome bit of transparency. In addition to giving the public immediate access to hearings, the audio feed has been paired with text and photos of the Justices to allow students to more fully appreciate the flow of oral argument. (Click here, then on the “Oral argument” button on the left, for an example from oyez.org.)

The return to in-person arguments raises one other question: will the Justices continue to ask questions one at a time (in order of seniority), as they did during the pandemic-mandated telephonic hearings? Or will they go back to interrupting each other (and counsel) every chance they get? 

India develops rules for live-streaming court proceedings

The E-Committee of the Supreme Court of India has developed a set of draft rules for live-streaming and recording court proceedings. The draft rules are open for public comment through June 30.

The draft rules exclude a number of case types, including many related to family law, gender-based violence, and cases which “in the opinion of the Bench may provoke enmity amongst communities likely to result in a breach of law and order.” Parties will also have a chance to object to livestreaming in advance.

Post-COVID, an expanded toolbox for the courts

What will court proceedings look like once the coronivirus pandemic has run its course and society reopens in earnest? Already, courthouses are reopening for jury trials and hearings — a critical step for transparency and due proces. But as Judge Jack Zouhary explains at the IAALS Blog, videoconferencing is not going away. Rather, the courts will likely use videoconferencing for appropriate proceedings — everything from status conferences to settlement discussions.

The expectation of continued videoconferencing is welcome, but it is just the beginning of a larger transformation. The ongoing ability to access the courts through Zoom raises important questions about recording hearings, public transparency, the use of video for purposes of judicial performance evaluation and appeal, and so on. Put differently, new challenges are on the horizon. In the meantime, we are witnessing the true birth of America’s twenty-first century court system.

Are Supreme Court amicus briefs posing a transparency problem?

That’s the question raised in this excellent Wall Street Journal piece by Jess Bravin. He reports that the number of amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court has risen dramatically in recent years, with many of the briefs coming from opaque interest groups. Current Supreme Court rules only require that an amicus brief disclose whether a party or its lawyer funded the brief, or whether anyone else outside the named party contributed to its preparation. But this leaves plenty of room for little-known groups to file briefs, which may carry outsized influence with the Court.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is pushing for greater transparency in amicus briefs. I have criticized Senator Whitehouse routinely on this blog for his often perverse behaviors toward the federal courts, but on this issue we agree: greater transparency would benefit everyone.

Still, the courts would be better off modifying the policy themselves, rather than sitting back and allowing Whitehouse and his compatriots to force a legislative solution.

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.

West Virginia governor will appoint the judge who will rule in his case

A strange development in West Virginia. State judge Charles King passed away last month, and Governor Jim Justice is charged with appointing his replacement. Interviews will be taking place this week. At the time of his death, Judge King was presiding over a lawsuit in which the Governor was the defendant. The new appointee will take the reins of that suit. Put differently, the Governor will literally be picking the judge in his own case.

While it is common for governors to temporarily fill vacant seats on the bench so that the courts remain at full strength, this situation is plainly awkward. It is all the more so because of the efforts in the mid-2000s of Massey Coal Company to heavily finance the election of Brent Benjamin to the state supreme court; Benjamin would later cast the deciding vote in Massey’s favor in a major case pending before that court.

Governor Justice must carry out his appointment responsibilities, but he would be well-served by including extra transparency in the process — for his sake, the new judge’s sake, and the sake of long-term public confidence in the state judiciary.

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.

Federal courts announce audio livestream pilot

From today’s press release:

Thirteen district courts around the country will livestream audio of select proceedings in civil cases of public interest next year as part of a two-year pilot program.

Some of the courts already have begun making proceedings available via audio livestreams. The Northern District of Georgia on Dec. 7 streamed audio of a hearing on a presidential election-related lawsuit, which drew over 42,000 listeners. In September, the Eastern District of Missouri streamed audio of a status conference in the case of U.S. v. City of Ferguson. The remaining courts will be livestreaming by February 2021.

The 13 district courts participating in the pilot are in Northern California, Southern Florida, Northern Georgia, Kansas, Montana, Eastern Missouri, Nevada, Northern New York, Western Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Eastern Tennessee, Eastern Washington, and Washington D.C.

The livestreams will give the public access to real-time courtroom audio on the courts’ designated YouTube channels. Audio streaming of civil proceedings under the pilot requires the parties’ consent and is subject to the presiding judge’s discretion. The pilot excludes trials and civil proceedings involving jurors and witnesses, and also sealed, confidential, and classified materials.

While the pilot temporarily suspends a prohibition on broadcasting federal court proceedings in the designated courts, the livestreams may not be recorded or rebroadcast.

It’s an interesting followup to the now shuttered pilot program that enabled video recording (and subsequent rebroadcasting) of selected district court proceedings. Of course, many state courts implemented video livestreaming months or years ago, without any ill effect.