Federal courts will remain operational during government shutdown

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has announced that all federal courts will remain open for during the current government shutdown, using reserve funds that can last approximately three weeks. The AO further explains:

If the shutdown were to continue past three weeks, and exhaust the Judiciary’s resources, the Judiciary would then operate under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which allows work to continue during a lapse in appropriations if it is necessary to support the exercise of Article III judicial powers. Under this scenario, each court and federal defender’s office would determine the staffing resources necessary to support such work.

Funding is the court system’s most prominent externally acquired resource. Hopefully the courts’ ability to work through cases is not adversely affected by a long shutdown.

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Another ill-advised effort to “fire” judges, this time in New Mexico

In the fall of 2006, a partisan group in Colorado tried to convince that state’s voters to adopt a ballot initiative that would retroactively remove five of the state’s seven supreme court justices. The justices’ offense? They were all appointed by the same Democratic Governor over a span of a decade. Proponents of the measure argued that the targeted justices had decided cases in a blindly partisan manner, notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary. An exhaustive and concerted effort by the state bar and other groups eventually stopped the initiative from passing, but the bad taste of populist politics remained.  In 2010, a group calling itself “Clear the Bench Colorado” again tried to remove four state supreme court justices by voting for non-retention. Again, the effort was unsuccessful.

Instrumental to countering these “clear the bench” messages has been the presence of a longstanding and well-respected judicial performance evaluation (JPE) program in the state. For nearly twenty years leading up the 2006 ballot initiative, state judges had been periodically evaluated by local commissions, and the evaluation results shared with the public leading up to each judge’s retention election. As I have documented in this article, the Colorado JPE process should be credited not only with convincing voters that their judges were highly competent and professional, but also that occasional controversial decisions needed to be placed in broader context in determining whether a judge should remain on the bench.

Unfortunately, the same trend is now infecting Colorado’s southern neighbor. A group calling itself “Clear the Bench New Mexico” is calling on voters to “fire” judges who have issued sporadic controversial decisions by voting to not retain them in office.

But maybe New Mexico’s JPE well-established can serve a similar heroic role. As set out here, the process takes a comprehensive look at the judge’s work twice during his or her term in office, focusing (as with other JPE programs) not on case outcomes, but on each judge’s capacity and commitment to providing a fair process. Individual evaluations are posted for each judge facing retention, and voters can read these evaluations and make up their own minds.

A common complaint about JPE is that retention voters rarely read the full evaluations. Many choose not to vote at all with respect to judges, and others vote haphazardly — focusing, for example, on the judge’s last name or perceived gender, or whether the judge is recommended by a lawyer friend. So there is much work to be done for the JPE process to meet its full potential. But surely it is a better way to inform the public than the half-baked wranglings of political partisans.

Head of Poland’s top judicial body claims new rules are unconstitutional, resigns in protest

Poland’s ruling party, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), recently implemented new rules that place judicial selection and retention in the hands of the legislature. The new rules are part of a larger set of deeply controversial set of judicial reforms that have virtually ostracized Poland from the rest of the European Union.

Now the head of the National Council on the Judiciary, Poland’s top judicial body, has resigned his position to protest the new rules, claiming that they violate the country’s constitution and infringe upon judicial independence. It is an important move, albeit a symbolic one, since the PiS has a dominant majority in the legislature and shows no signs of slowing its reform agenda.

Federal court working group on workplace conduct announced

In his Year-End Report, Chief Justice Roberts announced that the federal courts would be forming a working group on workplace conduct, a reaction to the recent scandal involving Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski as well as workplace harassment scandals in prominent industries nationwide.  The membership of the working group has now been announced.  It includes:

James Duff, Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard, First Circuit Court of Appeals

Judge M. Margaret McKeown, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

Chief Judge Julie A. Robinson, U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas

Judge Sarah S. Vance, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

Margaret Weigand, Chief Executive, Third Circuit Court of Appeals

Jeffrey Minear, Counselor to the Chief Justice

John Cooke, Deputy Director of the Federal Judicial Center

The working group will eventually issue its findings in a written report.

The workload argument for splitting the Ninth Circuit

From Mark Brnovich and Ilya Shapiro in the Wall Street Journal (may require subscription).  Key grafs:

The Ninth Circuit has an astonishing backlog, accounting for nearly a third of all pending federal appeals. It takes an average of 13 months to decide a case, the longest of any circuit and almost five months more than the national median. Judge Richard Tallman, a Clinton appointee on the Ninth Circuit who favors a split, told the Senate last summer that a legal brief in a pending appeal “is frequently years old and contains stale case law, by the time we can get to it.”

A second problem is the court’s unpredictability. Federal appeals courts hear cases in three-judge panels. But the Ninth Circuit has 29 judgeships, meaning there are more than 3,600 combinations of three. Judges can go years before hearing cases with some of their colleagues.

The composition of the Ninth Circuit is, of course, as much a political question as a legal and organizational one. But it’s worth considering–as Brnovich and Shapiro remind us–that the question is not purely political. The circuit’s sheer size has a dramatic impact on its efficiency, predictability, and workload. Splitting it may well be the right thing to do.

Iowa Chief Justice sounds warning on budget cuts

Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady, in his annual state of the judiciary speech, recently warned that years of stagnant funding for the courts are “beginning to tear at the very fabric and operation of our mission.”  State funding to the court system for Fiscal Year 2018 remains the same as FY 2017 and lower than in FY2016. From the Des Moines Register:

Today, 182 fewer people are employed by the court system than one year ago, Cady said — a 10 percent reduction in workforce. That includes 115 essential positions that have gone unfilled, he said. Judicial branch employees include judges and magistrates, clerks of court, court reporters, IT staff, juvenile court officers and other administrative staff.

The reduced staffing has caused delays, Cady said, forcing the judicial branch to back off from a promise made two years ago to try all cases on the date scheduled without delays.

“We have been forced to walk back from this pledge because we do not have enough people to do the work to keep it,” Cady said.

 

Nash on judicial laterals

Jonathan Remy Nash (Emory) has posted his new article, Judicial Laterals, on SSRN.  It is a short and interesting empirical study of “lateral” moves by sitting judges, either from a state court to the federal bench, or vice versa.

Nash’s data set confirms many intuitions about such lateral moves. Unsurprisingly, a move from state court to federal court is overwhelmingly more common than a move from federal to state. Judges do occasionally leave the federal bench to join a state court, but almost always to “step up” within the court hierarchy (by moving, for example, from a federal district court to a state supreme court). Nash also examined connections between lateral decisions and factors such as the professionalism of the state court, the length of the judicial term on a state court, and the expected judicial salary.

The study was understandably limited to moves from one judicial position to another. But at some point it would also be very interesting to explore judges who leave the bench entirely for other legal (or law-related) jobs. We are accustomed to thinking about a judgeship as a capstone of a legal career, but there is no shortage of judges who leave before their terms are up to seek a different opportunity outside the courts. In recent years, for example, both state and federal judges have resigned their seats to take appointed political positions, run for elected office, enter academia, create think tanks, or even join the private sector.

The systemic explanations for these moves might well be complex and varied. State judges might be motivated in part by mandatory retirement ages, looming reelection or retention campaigns, higher salaries, better quality of life, or restlessness to try something new. Federal judges, with lifetime job security, are giving up something more. What motivates the change for them?

Perhaps some day we will be able to dive more deeply into that question. In the meantime, I commend Professor Nash’s piece to the reader.