Senate Republicans alter blue slip process for two judicial nominees

Back in May, Senate Republicans openly mulled reforming the “blue slip” process to allow a federal judicial nominee to advance to a vote even if one home-state senator opposed the nomination. Now that reform is set to take place for two Court of Appeals nominees, David Stras of Minnesota and Kyle Duncan of Louisiana.

Debates over the blue slip process always feature some of the worst hypocrisy in the Senate, with the party in power (here led by Sen. Charles Grassley) waxing poetic about the Senate’s obligation to give every candidate a fair vote and the opposition party (here led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein) cynically urging that the president’s nominees are all dangerous extremists.

Imagine if other organizations had to rely entirely on outsiders to staff their core positions.

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Ohio Justice apologizes but refuses to quit court after Facebook fiasco

Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill, who is serving on the court while simultaneously running for the governorship as a Democrat, made news again this past weekend with a Facebook post in which he claimed to have 50 lovers over the past century, and described two trysts in detail. The since-deleted post read in part:

“Now that the dogs of war are calling for the head of Senator Al Franken I believe it is time to speak up on behalf of all heterosexual males…. In the last fifty years I was sexually intimate with approximately 50 very attractive females. It ranged from a gorgeous personal secretary to Senator Bob Taft (Senior) who was my first true love and we made passionate love in the hayloft of her parents barn in Gallipolis and ended with a drop dead gorgeous red head who was a senior advisor to Peter Lewis at Progressive Insurance in Cleveland.”

As the kids today like to say, OMG.

Everyone is rightly horrified by this post, with some of the harshest criticism coming from those within O’Neill’s own party, and from the court itself. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said in a statement, “I condemn in no uncertain terms Justice O’Neill’s Facebook post. No words can convey my shock. This gross disrespect for women shakes the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.”

O’Neill issued an apology on Facebook on Sunday morning, stating: “There comes a time in everyone’s life when you have to admit you were wrong. It is Sunday morning and i [sic] am preparing to go to church and get right with God.”

Notwithstanding the apology, O’Neill faces calls for him to resign from the court and end his gubernatorial campaign. His campaign manager has already resigned. But O’Neill insists that he will stay on the court, and will only leave the governor’s race if former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief Richard Cordray jumps in.

The people of Ohio deserve much, much better than this.

EU to Romania and Bulgaria: Not enough progress on judicial reform

This week, the European Commission issued its latest reports on the justice systems of two EU member states, Romania and Bulgaria. Both states have made slow progress in positively reforming their judicial systems, but  the Commission concluded that in both states, momentum for reform was lost in 2017.

Both countries have tried to put a positive spin on the report, noting they still have work to do. But they will be under renewed pressure to move closer to the Commission’s anti-corruption and transparency goals, especially in light of the significant threats to judicial independence that emerged in neighboring Poland earlier this year. The Commission’s mandate to monitor reform in both countries expires in 2019.

The full Commission reports can be found here.

 

Venezuelan judge seeks refugee status in Canada

The swirling political and financial chaos in Venezuela has been closely coupled with the ongoing desecration of judicial independence by President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.

Now the evidence of that desecration is starting to gush out.  Toronto’s Globe and Mail has published a story on Venezuelan judge Ralenis Tovar, who fled to Canada with her family in July and is now claiming refugee status there. Judge Tovar alleges that as a judge in Caracas, she was forced to sign arrest warrants for Maduro’s political enemies.  She further claims that the Maduro government tapped her phones and even attempted to kidnap her daughter from school.

From the Globe and Mail interview:

On her way home from work on Feb. 12, 2014, Ms. Tovar received a series of phone calls from an unknown number. Assuming it was an inmate, she didn’t answer. Then the president of Venezuela’s Supreme Court phoned and told her to pick up the calls. She did and was told to head back to the office.

Ms. Tovar said the court was surrounded by the National Guard and military intelligence officers when she arrived. She was greeted by four public prosecutors, who guarded her office’s door as she sat down.

She was given a folder with three arrest warrants inside. She said she didn’t recognize the first two names, but was shocked when she read the name on the third warrant: Leopoldo Lopez.

“I felt petrified because internally I knew what was the purpose of that warrant, which was to silence a political leader who was an obstacle for President Maduro,” Ms. Tovar said.

Given that it was 2 a.m., Ms. Tovar asked the prosecutors if she could review the warrant the next day. She said they laughed sarcastically and told her that if she didn’t sign it, she would end up like Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a Venezuelan judge who was allegedly raped in prison in 2010.

Terrified, Ms. Rovar signed Mr. Lopez’s arrest warrant.

Judicial independence and political freedom go hand in hand.  When one erodes, the other cannot be far behind.

Tweeting Judges, Revisited

Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who rose to fame in social media circles for his active and vibrant use of Twitter, was deemed “well-qualified” for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by the American Bar Association earlier this week. Perhaps appropriately, the decision was tweeted out by another prominent member of the state court Twitterati, Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Dillard.

Justice Willett has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and was a very active tweeter before his federal judicial nomination drove him to stay off the platform, at least temporarily. But he is no longer a rare exception to the rule that active judges stay off of social media. Chief Judge Dillard has more than 11,000 followers, and tweets several times a day, mostly on general legal issues.  He is joined by many other judges around the country with active Twitter accounts.

The legal profession has always been uneasy with judges engaging social media. David Lat took a look at this in 2014, concluding that the judicial use of Twitter to educate the public about the work of the courts was entirely appropriate, and that “judges just need to exercise sound judgment.”

The social media landscape has only grown in the ensuing three years, and the question is worth another look.  Is the judicial use of Twitter humanizing or harmful?

Continue reading “Tweeting Judges, Revisited”

Multinational courts in the news

Two courts with multinational reach were recently in the news. The African Court on Human and People’s Rights was recently praised at a meeting of the African Union (AU) as “the premier judicial continental body.” And the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), based in Trinidad, has announced that it will develop a five-year strategic plan “with stakeholder engagement being a top priority.”

Like many courts with cross-border reach, the African Court and the CCJ depend heavily on regional member countries to provide jurisdiction and legitimacy. For example, the CCJ is seventy years old, but only three countries in the region have agreed to grant it appellate jurisdiction. The African Court has been established for more than twenty years, but only 30 member states have joined, and only 25 cases have been finalized in the past decade. Much work remains to be done.

In new lawsuit, court journalists allege that electronic case filing undermines transparency

The Courthouse News Service, a specialty news service focusing on civil cases across the United States, has sued the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Clerk’s Office. The lawsuit alleges that the Clerk’s office is withholding information on new case filings from the public for days after the cases are filed. In particular, the suit claims that the Clerk’s office is not immediately disclosing some electronically filed complaints, even though those complaints should be public record as soon as they are filed.

The Cook County Record reports:

Under the old method, the lawsuit said, journalists working in the courthouse were able to freely access paper lawsuits as they were filed with the circuit clerk’s office, even before they entered the official intake process, as the courts considered such lawsuits public information from the moment they were dropped off at the clerk’s office, essentially making private disputes the public’s business.

However, as more and more lawsuits have been e-filed, CNS said the clerk’s office has withheld more and more of them, for days or weeks at a time, as they are administratively processed.

“These delays in access … is (sic) the result of the Clerk’s policy and practice of withholding new e-filed complaints from press review until after the performance of administrative processing, including post-filing ‘acceptance’ of the complaint, at which time the Clerk deems the complaint ‘officially filed,’” CNS wrote in its lawsuit. “The Clerk takes this position even though the applicable rules and orders provide that e-filed complaints received before midnight on a court day are ‘deemed filed’ on the date of receipt, even if they are not ‘officially’ accepted as filed until a later date…”

CNS noted this particularly allows plaintiffs’ lawyers to control the initial flow of information about their lawsuits, as they can spoon feed the complaints to news outlets they may consider more friendly or sympathetic, while other competing outlets wait days or weeks for access to the vital public documents associated with the case.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and names Cook County court clerk Dorothy Brown as a defendant. The case number is 1:17-cv-07933. Ironically, the Courthouse News Service does not seem to have uploaded the complaint to its own news website.