Justice Thomas on the “myth” of judging

Justice Clarence Thomas recently spoke at a Supreme Court Fellows program at the Library of Congress. According to reports, he addressed a wide range of court-related issues, ranging from the federal confirmation process to his own tenure on the court.

But this is the passage that really struck me:

“There’s a real decided difference between what is said about what goes on and judging and the court and what actually happens,” Thomas said. “There’s the real world and there’s the myth of that world.”

Thomas specifically cited accusations that judges “just want to execute people.”

“I haven’t met a judge who wants to execute anybody,” he said. “I haven’t met that judge yet. In fact, every judge I have met, going through these cases — look at what it does to your hair. You start out, your hair is black. You have lots of it. Then all of a sudden, you’re follically impaired. Your hair, what’s left, it turns gray, and you say, ‘Oh my God, another execution.’ Every one of us is like, ‘Did I get it right? Did I make a mistake?’”

In our tantrum-induced political environment, it’s easy to ascribe the worst motivations to anyone with whom we disagree, and even easier to caricature them as monsters. Judges struggle with the difficult issues more than most of us — and unlike legislators, have little or no opportunity to respond to brazen personal attacks.

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Counting on the Low-Information Voter

The LSE Blog features some interesting new research by University of Texas Professor Brent Boyea on the intersection of partisan elections, campaign contributions, and professionalized courts. Looking at 12 years’ worth of data from state high court elections, Boyea found that campaign contributors are nearly twice as generous, on average, in states with partisan judicial elections than they are in states with nonpartisan judicial elections. He also found that “contributors support candidates more actively in states with professionalized courts where judges have higher salaries, advanced resources, and courts have freedom to decide their agenda.” And contributors are most generous when elections are partisan and courts are professionalized. This suggests, to me at least, that campaign contributors expect to get the most “bang for the buck” in states where a candidate’s election is all but assured on partisan grounds, and the elected judge will later have some freedom to act in a manner consistent with the contributor’s own agenda.

Somewhat related is this story out of Illinois, discussing how attorney Phillip Spiwack legally changed his name to Shannon O’Malley in advance of his campaign for a Cook County judgeship. Spiwack/O’Malley appears to be conceding to a stubborn reality of Chicago judicial elections: having an Irish woman’s name is an extraordinarily valuable commodity at the polls—more valuable, it seems, than professional experience, skill, or judicial temperament.

These items add to a growing body of evidence that in judicial election states, citizens are virtually expected to come to the polls armed with no more information than a candidate’s party affiliation or surname. How this advances the integrity, efficiency, or legitimacy of the judicial system is beyond me.

(Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.)

Courts under water in India and Kenya

I have previously documented recent threats to the proper functioning of the court systems of India and Kenya. In India, appalling delays and overflowing dockets, combined with strife at the highest levels of the judiciary, have undermined with the effectiveness of the system and overall public confidence. Now, unfortunately, related news has been announced: the country’s lower courts face almost 6,000 judicial vacancies. Even for a country of more than one billion people, that number is shocking.

Kenya has faced a different set of challenges in recent months, after its Supreme Court invalidated a presidential election and was subjected to ongoing threats and attacks. This week’s news is of a less violent sort, but one that is perhaps even more problematic for the judiciary: more than 50,000 cases in the court system have been pending for a decade or more. And the total case backlog stands at more than 315,000.

These stories keenly illustrate the idea of judicial interdependence: courts must operate fairly and efficiently to earn public confidence, and they need adequate resources to be able to do so. When courts are properly resourced and properly run, they earn confidence and more resources–a virtuous circle. But when they are poorly run or under attack, they become inefficient and lose both resources and legitimacy–a vicious circle. The Kenyan and Indian judiciaries are locked into the vicious circle right now.

D.C. Superior Court able to cobble together juries despite computer glitch

A computer glitch in the D.C. Superior Court prevented jury summonses from being printed and delivered in late December, leaving court officials scrambling for jurors in late January. Ultimately, the court was able to bring in enough jurors on a few days’ notice to be able to hold the scheduled jury trials.

Jury trials are a critical part of American democracy, and in many instances a constitutional right. But jury service is also an imposition on the lives of our citizens. Courts need to make it as easy as possible for people to perform their civic obligations, and monitoring whether jury notices go out on time seems like a simple place to start.

Nigeria’s top anti-corruption judge charged with corruption

Oh, dear.  From the Deutsche Welle story:

Nigeria’s top anti-corruption judge, tasked with high-profile cases, has himself been charged with illegally accepting money. The country’s anti-graft body accused Danladi Umar of demanding a bribe from a suspect.

Judge Danladi Umar allegedly demanded 10 million nairas (€22,300; $27,800)  from a suspect “for a favor to be afterward shown to him concerning the pending charge,” according to court papers seen by various news outlets.

The embattled Umar, who is the head of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), was also alleged to have received, through the intermediary of his assistant, the sum of 1.8 million nairas from the same accused in 2012 “in connection with the pending case before him.”

***

Nigerians reacted angrily at the news of the corruption charges against one of the country’s top judges.

“I’m not surprised about the corruption allegations against Danladi Umar. Corruption is like a tradition in the judiciary system,” Mayowa Adebola, a resident in Lagos, told DW. “You don’t have any reason to doubt corruption in the Code of Conduct Tribunal given their records, even though they have tried several high-profile corruption cases in the past,” he added.

Another resident, Yomi Olagoke, said, “The allegations against Umar are quite serious, and it boils down to how our anti-corruption bodies are set up and run,” adding that for many Nigerians, holding an anti-corruption post was an opportunity to make money.

 

Positive changes in the Michigan state courts

The Michigan courts recently announced two initiatives designed to improve the experience of being in court for their users. The Third Circuit Court in Detroit opened new lactation rooms in four different buildings to improve access for nursing mothers. And in Dearborn, a local judge has opened a veterans court to provide help to veterans with mental health or substance abuse problems who would otherwise face jail time.