The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

In retrospect, the contretemps at summer’s end between the District Attorney’s office and a municipal court judge in Boston looks like a case study on the importance of effective accountability mechanisms in a judicial system. The dispute between prosecutors and Judge Richard Sinnott arose following the arrest of counter-demonstrators during the Boston Straight Pride Parade. Sinnott refused to accept an entry of nolle prosequi – the abandonment of a charge – in respect to certain defendants accused of disorderly conduct, on the ground that doing so would violate a Massachusetts statute that protects victims’ rights. The judge also ordered that a defense attorney arguing in favor of accepting the nolle prosequi be handcuffed and removed from the courtroom.

In addition to attracting a great deal of media attention, Judge Sinnott’s actions came in the wake of both a failed effort to amend the method of judicial selection in Massachusetts, and the release of the Boston Bar Association report, “Judicial Independence: Promoting Justice and Maintaining Democracy,” which defended the Commonwealth’s system of judicial selection through gubernatorial appointment with approval by the governor’s council. The responses to Sinnott’s denial of the Commonwealth’s entry of nolle prosequi and detention of a defendant’s lawyer illustrate ways in which real accountability is possible without abandoning judicial tenure. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the working group that drafted the Boston Bar Association report).

The Massachusetts legislature rejected a recent proposal to amend the constitution to provide that judges be reviewed every seven years, an initiative aimed at ensuring judicial accountability, according to one of the sponsors, for those judges who “make poor legal decisions.” The Boston Bar Association report, on the other hand, highlighted the existing mechanisms through which judges can be held accountable within the existing system. These mechanisms include the appellate process, an enforceable code of judicial conduct, and the promotion of transparency. Each of these mechanisms has worked in the case of Judge Sinnott.

Continue reading “The Importance of the Commitment to Judicial Accountability in Massachusetts”

PACER “can never be free”

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing entitled “Federal Judiciary in the 21st Century: Ensuring the Public’s Right of Access to the Courts.” Like much of what Congress does, the hearing featured a lot of pomp and circumstance with relatively little substance. But there was an interesting revelation from U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig, who (along with U.S. District Judge Richard Story) testified before the Subcommittee on public access to the work of the federal courts. Specifically, Judge Fleissig asserted that “Our case management and public access systems can never be free because they require over $100 million per year just to operate.”

The $100 million figure was new to me. That is a lot of money. Now I suspect that the external part of that system — the PACER interface for public access — constitutes only a small part of that overall cost, and that most of the cost goes to internal case management software that the courts would use in any event. So perhaps Judge Fleissig is being a bit selective with her evidence.

Still, I am sympathetic to the statement that PACER can never be free. Someone has to pay for it–the direct users, the court system, or Congress.

I explored the PACER funding dilemma at length here. And I do not expect that a show hearing before a House Subcommittee would really explore these issues in depth. But I do hope (and expect) that someone — both in the court system and in Congress — is thinking about the PACER funding problem with the seriousness it deserves.

Tennessee courts launch new podcast

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.

“The need for information is there, and the podcast gives us another tool for meeting that need.”
This is a great idea, and I’ll be watching (and listening) to see how it develops.

The PACER class action and the problem of court funding

Which is the best model for charging for access to court records: a rest stop, a bus pass, or a bake sale?

What (if anything) should the judiciary charge for public access to records, and how should that decision be made? That question is now squarely facing the federal courts and Congress.

I have blogged periodically about the 2016 class action lawsuit alleging that the federal courts overcharged users for access to its electronic public records system (known as PACER), and used the surplus to fund a variety of internal projects. Last spring, a federal district judge granted partial summary judgment to the defendants as to liability, but concluded that some of the project funding had indeed exceeded Congressional authorization. The decision is now on appeal.

Although no decision will be coming for a while, a number of recent events have returned the case to the public eye. In late January, several prominent, retired federal judges filed an amicus brief arguing that the courts should not charge any fees for public access to court records. That brief led to a story in the New Republic entitled “The Courts Are Making a Killing on Public Records.” All the while, the five-week federal government shutdown forced the courts to use up all of their “rainy day” resources and put them on the verge of operating without funding, illustrating the relative financial fragility of the courts as an organization.

I take as a given that the federal court system, as a whole, is committed to providing public access for all. But it is also a given that on an organizational level, the court system feels an obligation to protect its core activities from environmental disruption, including financial disruption. The current lawsuit provides an excellent illustration of the underlying tension between those values, and also suggests a solution. More below. Continue reading “The PACER class action and the problem of court funding”

India’s Supreme Court to introduce live streaming

The Indian Express reports:

Ushering in more transparency in the judiciary’s work, the Supreme Court on Wednesday gave its nod to live-streaming of court proceedings, saying this will bring more accountability and enhance the rule of law.

A bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, in two concurring judgements — one by CJI Misra and Justice Khanwilkar and other by Justice Chandrachud — said: “We hold that the cause brought before this court by the protagonists in larger public interest deserves acceptance so as to uphold the constitutional rights of the public, and the litigants in particular.”

Delving into the benefits of allowing this, Justice Chandrachud said, “Above all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

India gets it. When will we be able to say that of our Supreme Court?

 

UK criminal bar offers tentative support for courtroom cameras

The Criminal Bar Association in the United Kingdom has offered tentative support for placing cameras in the courtroom, in part as a means to tamp down “aggressive” behavior by barristers. The organization added that any introduction of cameras must be done carefully so as to shield (as necessary)the identity of victims.

The sentiments were echoed by the Transparency Project, a group which campaigns to improve the clarity of family courts. The group also noted its skepticism that courtroom cameras would control aggressive lawyering.

Protecting the identities of witnesses, victims, and jurors has long been a sticking point for the introduction of courtroom cameras. But these issues have exist–and would continue to exist–in any open court setting. As the recent ugliness surrounding the Manafort trial has shown, judges are up to the task of protecting the identities of jurors and witnesses as needed on a case-by-case basis.

Missouri expands media access to courtrooms

The Missouri Supreme Court is allowing expanded access for media tools in its courtrooms, including live Tweeting, electronic note taking, and expanded camera use beyond a single “pool camera.” The updated provisions are the first major change since 1995.

Individual judges will still have the final say over media access in any particular case.