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.)

Advertisements

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.

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.

Georgia judge faces contested election after prominent local attorney promises “blood sport”

Georgia Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt, Jr., a twenty-year veteran of the bench, will be opposed for reelection for the first time after a local attorney threatened “blood sport” against him.

In late 2016, prominent local attorney Bobby Lee Cook wrote to Judge Van Pelt: “I want you to finish your two years remaining on your term and to qualify for re-election — if you have the stamina and resolve! There is nothing so interesting as a Northwest Georgia election where politics for generations has been a ‘blood sport.'” Cook was apparently infuriated by Judge Van Pelt’s position that Cook’s daughter–herself a local judge–was not qualified to serve as the circuit’s chief judge.

Cook, a lawyer since 1949, considers himself to be a local power broker.  He has represented many prominent Georgia families and was portrayed in the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Cook credits himself with placing Van Pelt on the bench in 1996.

Last week, attorney Melissa Hise announced that she would challenge Judge Van Pelt in May’s election. Cook says he supports Hise’s candidacy but has nothing to do with it.

Van Pelt is more suspicious.  “As a general rule,” he said, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

 

Minnesota seeks public comment on broadcasting of criminal proceedings

In 2015, the Minnesota Supreme Court authorized a pilot program to allow limited audio and video coverage of criminal proceedings in the state trial courts. The pilot ended in December, and the state’s advisory committee on criminal rules has recommended that the pilot procedures be adopted permanently.  The Supreme Court is now seeking public comment on this proposal.

Comments are due by March 25, and a hearing will be held in April.

Missouri’s Chief Justice seeks more treatment courts

It’s State of the Judiciary season all across the United States, with chief justices traveling to state legislatures to lay out the success and challenges of their respective judicial branches. In Missouri, Chief Justice Zel Fischer used this year’s address to seek support for additional treatment courts — state courts specially designed to work with offenders who have drug addictions.  Fifteen Missouri counties currently lack a treatment court.

The growth of specialized courts like treatment courts across the country reflect  growing sense that the court system can better address criminal and other socially undesirable activity by becoming more involved in preventing its root causes. This is a divergence from the traditional role of the courts, designed only to neutrally determine guilt or liability in an individual case. Courts are increasingly seen as a component of a larger network of public and private organizations that can, collectively, address such issues with more depth. Hopefully the impact of specialized courts will be the subject of further study — and if a positive impact is shown, court systems and legislatures will be willing to further experiment with the systemic structure of state judicial systems.

Florida Supreme Court will broadcast all oral arguments on Facebook Live

The Florida Supreme Court, a longtime leader in televised access to court hearings, has announced that it will broadcast all of its oral arguments on Facebook Live starting in February.  The court has broadcast arguments through other providers since the late 1990s.  Broadcasts will continue to be archived.

More information from the court is available at its Facebook page.

Related: the very same court will soon decide whether judges must recuse themselves when they are Facebook friends with one of the lawyers appearing before them.