A glance at the recent developments, and what to look for in the future.
It has been about seven weeks since the coronavirus pandemic began to affect state and federal courts in the United States. At this point, it seems worthwhile to set out the ways in which courts have responded, both by adjusting their own operations and by reaching out to others in the external environment. We can also begin to consider which of the current changes might stick after the pandemic subsides.
Hearings and transparency. Many state court systems have proven remarkably agile at moving in-court proceedings to telephone and videoconference platforms. Both trial and appellate courts are now holding regular hearings via Zoom (although some lawyers apparently need a reminder about appropriate dress). At least one state court has even conducted a full bench trial by Zoom. The federal court system has also made impressive strides, albeit with a bit more reluctance. In late March, the Judicial Conference of the United States authorized the Chief Judge of each federal district court to permit selected criminal hearings within the district to proceed by videoconference. Federal appellate courts have also begun conducting criminal hearings by videoconference. And the United States Supreme Court announced that after a coronavirus-induced hiatus, it would hear a handful of regularly scheduled oral arguments by telephone beginning in May. Continue reading “COVID-19 and the courts: Where we are and where we might be going”
A guest post by Lawrence Friedman
In Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that absentee ballots in Wisconsin had to be postmarked by election day or earlier, which meant that many citizens would have to brave the polls and risk exposure to the novel coronavirus in order to vote. A New York Times story subsequently observed that the per curiam decision “was in keeping with a broader Republican approach that puts more weight on protecting against potential fraud — vanishingly rare in American elections — than the right to vote, with limited regard for the added burdens of the pandemic.”
This view aligns with that of the critics who note that the results in many of the Court’s recent voting rights decisions tend as a practical matter to inure to the benefit of the Republican Party. Indeed, a central question raised by the Court’s rulings in this area is whether the prevailing majority in these cases – Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – is motivated solely by partisanship. Writing in The Atlantic about the decision in the Wisconsin case, for example, Garret Epps asked whether the majority was “guided by principle or by simple allegiance to the party that has gone to such lengths to seize control of the Court.”
There is an argument to be made that there is a principle at work in election cases—that the Court’s rulings reflect neither the majority’s embrace of dubious theories about voter fraud nor a bare desire to harm Democrats but, rather, a commitment to resolving disputes about who gets to vote on neutral grounds. Indeed, the Roberts court’s voting rights decisions can be seen as expressions of the majority’s abiding interest in avoiding – seemingly at all costs – any judicial involvement in the way state governments run elections. This interest follows from the premise that, as the majority reads it, the constitution is pre-political: there are no Republicans and Democrats, only candidates; and the rules under which elections are run are, other than when they are expressly discriminatory on the basis of race, the purview of legislators. Continue reading “The Supreme Court’s Sometimes Questionable Adherence to Principle in Voting Rights Cases”
A federal district court has delayed the trial in a challenge to Alabama’s method to selecting state appellate judges. The trial, originally scheduled to begin in August, was removed from the trial list in light of complications posed by social distancing and the coronavirus.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports:
The lawsuit alleges that the state’s method of electing appellate judges dilutes the voting strength of black voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The seven Supreme Court justices are elected statewide to eight-year terms, while the 12 Appeals Court judges are elected from seven districts, five of which elect two members.
Attorneys for the state asked Moody in August to dismiss the case, arguing that “justice should not be administered on the basis of race, and Section 2 [of the Voting Rights Act] does not require this court to fundamentally reshape the Arkansas judiciary.”
Attorneys for the plaintiffs responded that the Act was enacted for “the broad remedial purpose of ridding the country of racial discrimination in voting,” including state judicial elections.
The delay was necessitated because social distancing practices had severely hampered the parties’ ability to conduct discovery. The judge did not foreclose certain discovery practices from continuing, however, and has ordered the parties to meet electronically and work out a time frame for handing over certain election data.
A Voting Rights Act challenge to state judicial voting districts was also raised in Louisiana back in 2014, resulting a trial verdict for the plaintiffs.
Over the past three years, his blog has tracked the litany of shocking stories coming out of Chicago area judicial elections — shocking, that is, for anywhere except Cook County. There, it seems, the sulfurous mix of identity politics, voter ignorance, and unscrupulous candidates is a way of life.
This week, the Chicago Sun-Times and Injustice Watch added another depressing data point: “sham” judicial candidates who are placed on the ballot simply to confuse voters and throw the election. Here’s how it is alleged to work: when it appears that a candidate preferred by the city’s Democratic establishment is at risk of losing a judicial race, one or more “sham” candidates will enter the race and be added to the ballot. The “sham” candidates are not real, in the sense that they expend no money on the campaign, conduct no campaign events (and often barely have a campaign website), and don’t seem sincerely interested in a judicial post. But these “sham” candidates do have something in common: names that appeal to voters’ identity politics (which is Chicago, translates mostly to feminine -sounding first names and Irish surnames). The expectation is that voters, who have done no research on the judicial candidates on the ballot, will simply vote for those who sound like Irish-American women. (And there is proof that this expectation plays out in real life.) The “sham” candidates confuse enough voters to draw votes away from the non-establishment candidate, allowing the establishment candidate to prevail.
It’s doesn’t always work. The article, for example, relates how the presence of alleged “sham” candidate Bonnie McGrath in 2016 was not enough to prevent the victory of non-establishment candidate Carol Gallagher. And the alleged “sham” candidates have protested that despite their utter lack of campaign activity, their desire to be judges is sincere. But let’s be honest: the entire process is still shameful — or at least it should be, if the party bosses behind this ruse were capable of shame.
Arizona’s constitution requires that counties with a population over 250,000 must select their superior court judges using a merit selection model: judges are appointed by the governor based upon recommendations from a nonpartisan nominating commission, and then subject to periodic retention elections. Smaller counties, by contrast, typically elect their judges in contested elections.
But citizens in these smaller population counties may opt into the merit selection process by approving the change during a general election. And that is exactly what Coconino County voters did last week. It marks the first time that a rural Arizona county has chosen merit selection over the standard, party-affiliated election system. Coconino County Judge Dan Slayton provides more detail on the change at the IAALS Blog.
I applaud the move!
This November, Coloradans will vote on Amendment W, a proposal to streamline the state’s ballot for judicial retention elections.
Currently, for each state supreme court justice facing retention, the ballot contains the question, “Shall Justice ___ of the Supreme Court be retained?” For judges on other courts, the ballot takes a similar form: “Shall Judge ____ of the ___ Court be retained?” If passed, Amendment W would allow county clerks to ask a single retention question applicable to all judges on the ballot: “Shall the following Justices (Judges) of the Supreme (or other) Court be retained in office?” The judges seeking retention would then be listed by name, with an option for Yes or No next to each name.
This has been billed as a cleanup measure which would shorten ballots, saving counties money and increasing voter participation in down-ballot judicial retention elections. It garnered bipartisan support in the state legislature, and has not been subject to any organized opposition. I suspect it will pass easily.
But I also wonder if there will be unintended consequences flowing from the shorter ballot. Partisan efforts to remove judges for specific decisions are aimed mostly at appellate judges, and count on voters to be ignorant about the court system. The shorter ballot exacerbates voter ignorance, by eliminating one more piece of information to help voters distinguish among the judges on the ballot. Put differently, without court designations on the ballot, some voters might not remember which judge they think they should remove, and so might just vote to remove them all.
This scenario is not likely, but neither is it unimaginable. A shorter ballot may be good for election administration, but it also presents more work for the judiciary, the bar, and the judicial performance evaluation committees in their efforts to educate the public about the real work of the courts.
A challenge to Texas’s state judicial election scheme brought by Latino voters has been rejected by a federal district court. The lawsuit, brought by La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), asserted that Texas’s system for statewide appellate court elections diluted the Latino vote in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. But U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzalez Ramos rejected that theory, noting that the election outcomes were better explained by (perfectly legal) dominance by the Republican Party.
The result stands in contrast to a ruling in Louisiana last year, in which a federal court found the at-large judicial election system in Terrebonne Parish to violate the U.S. Constitution. One important difference may be that the Louisiana voting scheme called for a parish-wide vote even though each elected judge presided over a specific district. By contrast, the appellate courts in Texas do not have judges preside over specific regions.