West Virginia Supreme Court supports legislative oversight of its budget

Earlier this week, members of the West Virginia Supreme Court voted to support a state constitutional amendment that would confer greater legislative oversight of the court’s budget. The decision comes in the wake of a series of spending scandals that rocked the court and led to the impeachment trials of four of its members.

Amendment 2 would allow the legislature to reduce the Court’s budget by as much as 15 percent in a given year. It will go to the voters in November.

The amendment has been publicly supported by Justice Beth Walker, who was publicly reprimanded in lieu of impeachment earlier this month, and Chief Justice Margaret Workman, whose own impeachment trial was blocked this week by a specially seated Supreme Court on separation-of-powers grounds. The public support is a smart legitimacy-restoring move for both Walker and Workman, who have been accused of facilitating abuse the Court’s finances.

Colorado considers changes to judicial retention ballot

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.

 

Senate Republicans aim to confirm more than 40 more federal judges by year-end

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley indicated today his party’s desire to confirm 41 additional nominees to the federal bench by the end of the year. That number would include a replacement for Judge Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit.

The bad blood between the Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, and more generally in the Senate, will make this a more difficult project. I can only hope that the Senators look beyond their partisan political aims and recognize the importance to the public of having a fully staffed judiciary. This is especially true for the 39 district court nominees, many of whom have been nominated to fill long-vacant seats on the bench.

Australian judge warns that overworked judges may contemplate suicide

In a remarkably stark assessment, New South Wales District Judge Robyn Tupman warned that docket pressure on Australia’s courts might drive some of her judicial colleagues to suicide.

Citing two recent, high-profile cases of Australian judges taking their own lives, Judge Tupman argued that a lack of resources in the courts put pressure on judges–especially newer judges–to keep up with rapidly expanding dockets. This is particularly concerning, Judge Tupman said, when docket pressure forces judges to make highly sensitive decisions under extreme time pressure. By way of example, she noted that she was scheduled to sentence seven different offenders on the day of her remarks, some of which were bound to draw significant public attention. The clear implication of her remarks was that pressure to get the sentence right was exacerbated by not having enough to time to properly consider it.

Judge Tupman described the her current caseload as “ridiculous, absurd and offensive to the people of NSW.”

Her comments follow other recent statements of concern about judicial mental health in Australia. Local bar leaders and NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman have committed to review the judge’s concerns.

 

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?

 

Disgraced former New Hampshire judge sues for pension and back pay; state seeks dismissal

Last June, former New Hampshire Superior Court judge Patricia Coffey sued the state, seeking an annual pension of nearly $90,000 and pension back pay of nearly $400,000, in addition to ongoing health insurance. Coffey resigned her position in 2008 after she was suspended for helping her husband create a false trust to hide assets. She was also found to have violated the state’s canons of judicial ethics by receiving a salary from a private company while on the state judicial payroll.

Coffey moved to California, but continued to make payments into the state pension system, and demanded full benefits once she was age-eligible in 2015. The state pension board denied her application.

Coffey is seeking a jury trial, but last week the state moved to dismiss the case altogether. That motion is pending before the federal court.