Cook County’s e-filing system continues to experience problems

Cook County’s efforts to implement an electronic filing system has run into its fair share of obstacles over the past year. Last November, the Courthouse News Service filed suit against the county, alleging that the clerk’s office was delaying the posting of public documents online, in violation of the First Amendment. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court gave the county a six-month extension to implement its e-filing system (half the time the county requested), and ordered it to commit all necessary resources to completing the transition. In January, a judge issued an injunction in the Courthouse News Service case which gave the county 30 days to develop a system that would give the press full access to newly filed cases.

After months of turmoil, the e-filing system is now in place. And people don’t like it. At all.

In theory, e-filing is supposed to increase access to the courts, enabling people without an attorney in civil cases to submit legal documents from a computer instead of trekking to a courthouse. But many paralegals and attorneys who find the mandatory platform confusing worry that it’s not user-friendly for people filing motions on their own. The system, launched July 1 by an Illinois Supreme Court order, also requires registrants to have an email address and an electronic form of payment, something advocates say can create barriers for low-income people.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown said she is working with the vendor, Texas-based Tyler Technologies, to make the platform more intuitive. But the changes need to be approved by the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts because they are part of a statewide program, Brown said.

“It’s been very challenging and difficult for our users as well as our staff,” Brown said. “We’re really asking our users to be patient.”

 

EU turns up the heat on Poland after PiS works to force judicial retirements

In the wake of a new Polish law lowering the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 to 65, the European Union has advanced to the next stage of its infringement procedure against the PiS (Law and Justice Party) led government.

The new Polish law on the Supreme Court lowers the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, which puts 27 out of 72 sitting Supreme Court judges at risk of being forced to retire. This measure also applies to the First President of the Supreme Court, whose 6-year mandate, set out in the Polish Constitution, would be prematurely terminated.

According to the law, current judges affected by the lowered retirement age are given the possibility to request a prolongation of their mandate by the President of the Republic, which can be granted for a period of three years, and renewed once. There are no criteria established for the President’s decision and no judicial review is available if the request is rejected.

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The Commission’s position is that the Polish law on the Supreme Court is incompatible with EU law as it undermines the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges, and thereby Poland fails to fulfil its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union read in connection with Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The Polish government has been given one month to comply with its obligations. I wish I could be optimistic that it will.

In West Virginia, candidates “lining up” to run for vacated supreme court seats

The West Virginia Metro News has more on the aftermath of former Justice Robin Davis’s quick (and cynically partisan) resignation immediately after the state House of Delegates impeached her this week.

West Virginia House impeaches four Supreme Court Justices

The West Virginia House of Delegates has voted to impeach four justices of its (five-member) supreme court. Lawmakers were largely unified on the impeachment of Allen Loughry, a Republican whose alleged fraud has led to federal charges, as well as Republican Beth Walker. Democrats in the House expressed opposition to impeaching fellow Democrats Margaret Workman and Robin Davis. In the end, however, all four were impeached.

Davis immediately resigned from the Court, accusing the House of staging a partisan coup. Her resignation was retroactive to Monday, meaning that a special election will be held for her seat this November. Under current law, if the three remaining justices are convicted, their replacements would be appointed by Governor Jim Justice.

In her resignation speech, Davis charged the Republicans in the legislature with conducting a witch hunt, alleging that “What we are witnessing is a disaster for the rule of law, the foundation for our state and, indeed, our own society…. For when a legislative body attempts to dismantle a separate branch of government, the immediate effects, as well as the precedent it sets for the future, can only be deemed disastrous.”

Davis’s claims would be cause for sincere alarm in many states, but her own actions suggest instead that they are wholly disingenuous. Her resignation was explicitly timed to trigger a special election. Under West Virginia law, if a judge leaves the bench more than 84 days before a scheduled election, the voters choose a replacement. If the judge leaves the bench with less time before the next election, however, her replacement is chosen by the governor. Monday, unsurprisingly, was exactly 84 days before the general election.

Davis’s retroactive resignation is nothing more than a transparent political ploy.  (She is not alone: House Democrats introduced a bill later in the day that would provide for special elections for all three remaining justices if they are impeached.) While Davis has not been proven guilty of the articles of impeachment, her refusal to even contest the charges and go to trial further undermines what little public confidence must remain in the court.

This is all rather extraordinary — but less so for West Virginia, whose long history of partisan judicial elections, questionable ethical practices, and big money influence is legendary. The state’s House Judiciary Committee Chairman, John Shott, said yesterday that “No one takes joy in this process.” If that sentiment is genuine, perhaps the people of West Virginia and their elected leaders should change the judicial selection system that makes circumstances like this possible.

In any event, the process now moves to the state senate for trial, which will be conducted by the judge standing: freshly appointed interim Justice Paul Farrell. Conviction requires a 2/3 vote of the 34-member chamber. No trial date has been scheduled.

Update on West Virginia Supreme Court impeachment proceedings

Today, the West Virginia House of Delegates will begin considering articles of impeachment against 80% of its supreme court. Fourteen articles were brought against four justices last week, mostly related to overspending, fraud, and creating a culture of overspending and fraud.

The full articles of impeachment can be found here.

Meanwhile, Judge Paul Farrell was sworn in as a temporary supreme court justice on Friday, replacing Allen Loughry, who has been suspended. (Loughry continues to hold his title and is one of the four justices facing impeachment.) In a strange twist, Chief Justice Margaret Workman (who is also facing impeachment) issued an administrative order appointing Farrell as acting chief justice for impeachment proceedings. In other words, if the House votes to impeach all four justices, a brand new justice with a temporary appointment would be thrust into the unenviable position of presiding over the trial.

West Virginia moves closer to impeaching its entire supreme court

The West Virginia House Judiciary Committee has approved fourteen articles of impeachment against the four remaining members of the state supreme court. Eight articles are directed toward Allen Loughry, four each against Margaret Workman and Robin Davis, and two against Beth Walker. In some cases, more than one justice is the subject of a charge.

Menis Ketchum, who resigned from the court at the end of July, was not included in the articles of impeachment.

Loughry’s alleged fraud on taxpayers is now well-documented and is the subject of a federal proceeding. The articles against the other justices suggest a widespread culture of lavish spending and corruption. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail reports:

Each justice is charged with “unnecessary and lavish” spending of state taxpayer dollars to renovate their offices in the East Wing of the Capitol. All four of them also are charged with failing to develop and maintain court policies regarding the use of state resources, including cars, computers and funds in general.

Loughry faces additional charges related to his alleged use of state vehicles for personal travel, having state furniture and computers in his home, having personal photos, documents, photos and artwork framed on the state’s dime, and handing down an administrative order authorizing payments of senior status judges in excess of what is allowable in state law.

 

Davis and Workman are charged with signing documents authorizing that senior status judges be paid in excess of what’s allowable in state law.

One article against Walker, charging her with using state money to pay an outside attorney to author an opinion in 2017, was rejected by the committee in a 14-9 vote. The outside attorney in that matter was Barbara Allen, currently the interim Supreme Court administrator, who wasn’t employed with the court at the time she wrote the opinion, said Marsha Kauffman, attorney for the Judiciary Committee.

The committee also rejected an article against Workman that charged her with facilitating the hiring of a contracted employee to do IT work for the court as a political favor.

The articles of impeachment will now advance to the full House.

One may ask what would happen if all four remaining justices are impeached and removed. Candidates are already lining up for a special election this November for Ketchum’s spot. But unless a justice is impeached before August 14, no more special elections can be called for this year. Instead, as this article suggests, it appears that Governor Jim Justice would appoint replacement justices for all vacancies on the court, and those justices would serve until the 2020 election.