When judges are litigants

I always find it interesting to follow cases in which a judge (or a group of judges) is a party, especially if the litigation involves some aspect of the judge’s professional role.  Two such cases popped up this week, in very different contexts.

In New York, the state Court of Appeals heard a challenge to legislatively imposed limits on judicial health benefits, in an action brought by a number of active and retired lower court judges.  The Court essentially was asked to rule whether the reduction in state contributions to judicial health insurance violated the compensation clause of the state constitution.  Interestingly, many of the judges were skeptical of the claim, and the decision has yet to be rendered.  But it was an excellent illustration of what I have called “judging when the stakes are personal” — conditions under which the judge cannot issue an entirely impartial decision, because he or she will necessarily be affected by the decision one way or another.

In a separate action with a very different flavor, state judges in New Orleans are defending a civil rights suit in federal court, accused of running a “debtor’s prison” by jailing poor criminal defendants who cannot pay court costs. The plaintiffs allege that the practice is unconstitutional. (The judges have moved to dismiss the action.)  This is a different kind of judicial interaction — a federal judge being asked to assess the constitutionality of a state judicial practice — but it still raises interesting issues about how the federal judge views the work and professional role of her state colleagues.

We will follow both cases, especially the way in which each court the issues surrounding its fellow judges.

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