Judicial independence still under siege in Poland

Although President Andrzej Duda vetoed two legislative proposals last month that would have severely weakened the independence of the Polish judiciary, he did sign a third bill that gave the country’s Justice Minister the power to remove and replace the heads of the lower courts.  That law went into effect this week, and the results are not promising.

The German media site Deutsche Welle reports on district judge Waldemar Zurek, a spokesman for Poland’s National Council for the Judiciary, who has been personally investigated by prosecutors on very flimsy grounds.  According to the story, Zurek

fears his computer will be seized for the information and contacts it contains. “They’ve already looked at my phone records – without my permission,” he said, which Polish law allows. The threatening letters were just a pretext to monitor him, Zurek said.

Zurek states in the story that he assumes his public stance in favor of judicial independence will cost him his job soon.  Will the Polish people stand for it?

New York court security officers to receive training on courthouse recording and media rights

In June, a reporter in the Syracuse, New York area was briefly handcuffed by courthouse security after he took pictures of individuals involved in a hallway altercation.  The court had generally prohibited photographing and video recording activities in court hallways, but made an exception for the media.

The reporter was freed after a few minutes and not charged, but court administrators are now requiring all security officers in the six-county area to undergo training on working with journalists as well as proper arrest procedure.  This appears to have been an isolated incident, but it is good to see the court system acknowledging the problem and working proactively with its officers to maintain the proper balance between security and transparency.

Scotland faces crisis in recruiting new judges

From Scottish Legal News:

Less than a month after a warning by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, that the English legal system was facing a ‘ticking time bomb’ in its failure to recruit judges, Scottish Legal News can reveal that Scotland too is facing such a crisis with top quality candidates spurning elevation to the bench.

Our enquiries among leading QCs found that most had no appetite to become judges citing hostile media coverage, lack of respect for the judiciary, relatively modest pay and pension packages, a backlog of distressing child sex abuse cases and concerns over judicial independence as well as the isolation and strenuous work load.

When incentives to enter a profession drop, the number of people seeking that profession drop as well.

UK courts: sip your drink before entering to prove it’s not acid

Following a surge of acid-throwing attacks across the United Kingdom, courts across England and Wales are asking visitors to take a sip from any bottles they bring into the courthouse.  There are already reports of long security lines at one courthouse that has implemented the new policy.

 

Lack of security protections in PACER system made it vulnerable to hacking

An organization called the Free Law Project has identified a serious vulnerability in PACER, the federal courts’ online filing system. The bug permits cross-site forgery, essentially a method of capturing another user’s account information, and utilizing that information to access documents. The original account owner would be charged, but might not know it until the account statement arrives weeks later. PACER fees, which are currently 10 cents per page with a maximum of $3.00 per document, can quickly add up.

Early stories also stated that another vulnerability would allow hackers to file documents through other people’s account, compromising the integrity of the entire justice system.  PACER administrators, however, have denied that fraudulent filing was possible.  The cross-site forgery issue has apparently also been addressed.

For those interested in the specific technical details of the bug, the Free Law Project has posted what it shared with the courts here.

 

Louisiana judge accused of helping pretrial services company extort poor defendants

The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of Louisiana, alleging that a Baton Rouge pretrial services company required hundreds of state inmates to pay “fees” far in excess of their court-ordered bail before they could be released from jail.  The lawsuit further alleges that the pretrial services company, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), was actively assisted by state judge Trudy White. RHI apparently supported Judge White’s 2014 re-election bid.

Although RHI has no formal contract with the state court system, Judge White allegedly ordered more than 300 criminal defendants to complete RHI’s services in 2015 and 2016–without ever inquiring into each defendant’s financial status. RHI subsequently charged the defendants hundreds of dollars in fees for its services–including a $525 “signup fee.” As a result, the suit alleges, hundreds of defendants were forced to languish in jail while friends and family scrambled to raise the needed money.

At this point, these are only allegations.  But we will follow this lawsuit closely.  The caption is Ayo et al. v. Dunn. et al., Case No. 3:17-cv-526.

 

Brooklyn judicial candidates accuse local party chief of holding illegal fundraiser for their opponents

I have previously discussed the candidacies of five Brooklyn residents who are running for judge, but refuse to go through the selection system dominated by Democratic Party bosses. In the latest twist in the story, a spokesman for the five candidates has accused local party boss Frank Seddio of hosting a “illegal” fundraiser for the party’s preferred candidates on August 23.

Surely some of this is an effort to stay in the news cycle, but the accusations of spokesman Gary Tilzer are still damning:

Seddio, an attorney, sent the red, white and blue invite to more than 185 people — including sitting judges, judicial candidates, attorneys, developers, politicians, lobbyists and members of the Judicial Screening Committee. The invite vaguely touts fund-raising “to support our contested countywide candidates.”

It doesn’t specify the candidates who will benefit or the election that’s involved.

***

Guests were instructed to write their $500 to $5,000 checks out to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, an account that’s controlled by the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and mail them to Seddio’s home address, according to the letter.

Tilzer’s three-page letter to the committees said Seddio’s fund-raising efforts violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct and are unethical on seven points, including not disclosing who the event benefits, inviting sitting judges to contribute and, since the beneficiaries aren’t named, having judicial candidates raising money with potential nonjudicial candidates.

As I have noted before, those who are truly concerned about the influence of money in politics might want to start by shining a light on local hornet’s nests like these.