Some thoughts on the Wendy Vitter nomination

I am quoted toward the end of this NOLA.com story on the nomination of Wendy Vitter to be a federal district judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana. As I pointed out in the story, the EDLA is down two full-time district judges and desperately needs people to step in and roll up their sleeves: the district has the second-highest number of pending cases in the country, and the sixth-worst number of trials completed during the last fiscal year.

The story emphasizes that many observers are happy with Vitter’s nomination — she has more than 100 criminal trials under her belt as a state prosecutor, and generally seems to be well-respected within the New Orleans legal community. Still, detractors raise three objections to her nomination: her lack of federal litigation experience, her marriage to a former U.S. Senator, and her Catholic faith.  None of these should derail her nomination.

Continue reading “Some thoughts on the Wendy Vitter nomination”

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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.

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.

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.

Cook County courts ordered to make e-filings immediately available to public

In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts, alleging that the county was posting electronically filed complaints days after receiving them, even though the complaints should have been immediately available to the press as public records.

On Monday, the federal court agreed, issuing a preliminary injunction which gives Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown thirty days to develop a system under which the press can gain immediate access to newly filed cases.

I do not envy Dorothy Brown. Late last month, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected her request for a one-year extension of the deadline to align Cook County’s e-filing system with that of the rest of the state. This new decision only turns up the heat on Cook County to develop a functional e-filing system in very short order.

Houston Chronicle profiles Judge Lee Rosenthal

The Houston Chronicle has a very good profile of Lee Rosenthal, a highly respected federal district judge in the Southern District of Texas. Judge Rosenthal is well-known not only as an excellent jurist, but as a thoughtful and tireless worker on issues of court administration. I will add that she is a warm, gracious, and lovely person as well. A good read for anyone interested in the backgrounds of judges and (to some degree) the inner workings of the federal court system.

Chief Justice releases 2017 Year-End Report

For law geeks with small children, the highlight of every New Years Eve is the quiet posting of Chief Justice Roberts’s Year-End Report on the federal courts website. It is a predictably comfortable document that invariably begins with a 200-year-old anecdote, proceeds through a single chosen topic in 10th-grade detail, and ends with a brief recitation of court statistics. In other words, it’s a little like Dave Barry’s annual year-end column, if that column were written by John Roberts instead of Dave Barry.

This year the Chief Justice’s focus is on court preparedness in the face of terror and natural disaster — an appropriate enough topic in light of last year’s hurricane season.  He also includes a short discussion of the courts’ forthcoming internal sexual harassment investigation.

Finally, some interesting statistical notes:

  • The Supreme Court’s docket fell again, with a little under three percent fewer filings and only 61 signed opinions.
  • Filings in the Courts of Appeal fell sixteen percent, but civil appeals were actually up one percent.
  • Filings in the federal district courts fell eight percent, and bankruptcy filings fell two percent.

I will probably have more to say on these figures in subsequent posts.  In the meantime, Happy New Year.