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.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am a strong advocate of courtroom cameras to promote transparency and educate the public about the work of the courts. So when access to courtroom cameras is abused, I am obligated to note that as well.
In a truly odd case coming out of San Juan County, Washington, the court dismissed assault and trespass charges against a criminal defendant after it was discovered that the local sheriff was manipulating a courtroom camera to view defense documents and a juror’s notebook during trial. The manipulation was only discovered when the defense attorney was reviewing a calendar at the court administrator’s desk during a break in the trial.
Loring [the defense attorney] said she was reviewing a calendar at the desk of Jane Severin, the court administrator, which has two computer monitors — one for work and the other showing views from security cameras in and outside the San Juan County Courthouse. According to court documents, Loring said her attention was drawn to movement of one of the normally stationary cameras. A closer look revealed it was the camera located above the jury box in district court, and that it was panning, tilting and zooming in on the jury box and counsel tables.
The sheriff maintain that any camera manipulation was accidental and unintentional. The judge dismissed the case.
The slightly ominous-sounding Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials has approved pay raises for several state government officials, including judges. Most judges will receive an 8.5% pay hike this year, another another 2.5% raise in 2020. The raises are designed to keep state judicial compensation close to the pay scale for federal judges.
It’s the time of year for State of the Judiciary addresses in many states, an opportunity for the Chief Justice of the state to provide the new state legislature with an update on the court system, including its strategic plans and ongoing resource needs. Several State of the Judiciary speeches have been reported in the news, allowing us to get a broad sense of what state courts are planning/hoping for in the coming year. More after the jump. Continue reading “The state of state judiciaries”
A remarkable story from Chehalis, Washington. Judge R.W. Buzzard was completing a criminal hearing when two defendants–handcuffed and wearing prison garb–decided to turn and flee the courtroom. They ran down a stairwell and attempted to escape the building. Courtroom video shows Judge Buzzard leap from the bench, pull off his robe, and give chase. Near the bottom of the stairwell, he apprehends one of the defendants (the other was caught a few blocks away).
The courthouse video is here.
The incident raises obvious questions about courthouse security:
“These things don’t happen very often,” said Sheriff Rob Snaza. “They’re few and far between.”
Snaza said this represents the second such incident within the last couple of years, that he’s aware of. There are monthly meetings to discuss courthouse security issues.
During this incident, Snaza said, security measures and quick communication made deputies aware of the incident quickly. The only deputy in the room did not give chase because he had two other inmates in his care, said Snaza.
In another example of external decisions directly affecting internal court operations, the state courts located in Des Moines, Washington reported a 300 percent increase in case filings after the city implemented red light cameras.
The impact of the cameras was “much greater than we anticipated,” [Judge Lisa Leone] told [the city] Council.
The judge said she was “so impressed with every single” member of her staff.
“Just today (May 11) there was a line out the door … every clerk was on the phone taking the time for every one who has questions about the cameras or anything else.”
In several states, the two senators collectively create a screening committee to recommend names of local attorneys and state judges to the President for a federal judicial appointment. The committees are not mandatory, and have been used somewhat haphazardly over time, but they do allow senators to provide useful information to the President about qualified individuals for the federal bench. The committees also help lock the senators in when home-state openings arise: by pre-screening a list of possible candidates, the senators are essentially telling the President that they will support any nominee who comes from that list. Such advance agreement avoids the embarrassment that Senator Michael Bennett must have felt earlier this month when, for purely partisan reasons, he had to vote against an extremely well-qualified fellow Coloradan, Neil Gorsuch, for the Supreme Court. Continue reading “Washington’s senators ask President to honor work of their judicial screening committee”