On quiet judicial turnover

State judicial elections sometimes produce extreme cases of court turnover, either because interest groups target a group of judges for removal (something I explore in this article), or because an election frenzy sweeps out all (or virtually all) judges affiliated with a certain party (something I explore in more detail here). Such rapid turnover has significant consequences for the courts: the loss of institutional memory, the learning curve for an entire set of new judges, and sometimes radical changes in court culture can all result from an election sweep.

But judicial appointment systems are not immune from significant turnover as well, especially if they are combined with mandatory retirement ages. In a much quieter and more incremental way, an entire generation of state judges can be replaced by a  governor in the course of the few years. Massachusetts provides the most recent example: with yesterday’s confirmation of Scott Kafker to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, Governor Charlie Baker has now appointed five of the court’s seven members.

Incremental change avoids many of the problems of party sweeps, and carries many direct benefits. New blood and new energy come into the system, and institutional memory is generally preserved. But the frequency of new state judicial appointments is often given little attention. For all the emphasis placed on a President’s ability to reshape the federal judiciary, it is worth remembering that mandatory retirement ages (which exist in all but three states) give governors or legislatures even more power to shape their respective state courts.

New Jersey may prohibit publication of judges’ home contact information

The New Jersey legislature will consider bills to prohibit publishing or posting the home addresses and phone numbers of state judges and prosecutors.  Violating the prohibition would carry a potential 18-month prison sentence and a fine of $10,000.  The bill also contemplates civil penalties.

The proposal comes amid increased awareness of direct threats to the judiciary. Just yesterday, a Florida man was arrested on multiple counts of threatening and stalking judges in Broward County.  And the Texas legislature recently passed bills to beef up courthouse security and designate attacks on judges as hate crimes.

 

White House announces eleven new district court nominees

President Trump nominated eleven people to federal district judgeships yesterday, covering districts in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.  Once again, I am struck by the nominees’ breadth of experience. The group of eleven includes five attorneys in private practice, three state court judges, one United States Magistrate Judge, one law professor, and one state legislator.  Several of the nominees have practice experience in both the government and the private sector.

As a general matter, I have been very impressed with the quality of judicial nominees coming from the administration.  Hopefully Congress will hold swift confirmation hearings on the nominees and begin to cure the severe vacancy crisis in our federal district courts.

Two North Carolina programs aim to ease court congestion

Two very different programs with the same goal of keeping people out of court were announced in North Carolina this week.

Durham County has one of the state’s highest levels of eviction filings, with approximately 900 cases filed each month.  Eviction cases are stressful for tenants and costly for landlords. A new program co-sponsored by Legal Aid of North Carolina, Duke University’s Civil Justice Clinic, and the Durham County Department of Social Services is aiming to reduce eviction filings by guiding affected tenants to legal and financial assistance programs.  The hope is that tenants will be able to remain in their homes, landlords will be paid the rent owed, and the courts will not be clogged with cases that might well be amenable to extrajudicial resolution.

In Buncombe County, local prosecutors have developed their own program to reduce the need for drivers to come to court to challenge or pay speeding tickets.  Drivers caught going 15 miles or less over the speed limit would have the option of paying their fine or even negotiating for reduced points online.  The district attorney behind the program estimated that 2000 people per day crowd the courthouse to appear before a magistrate for speeding fines.

 

Two extremes along the spectrum of judicial professionalism

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown was recognized with the 2017 American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the Ninth Circuit.  Judge Brown has served on the bench for the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon since 1999.  Cribbing from the press release:

Brown is president of the 9th Circuit District Judges Association, speaks frequently on programs for new trial judges, and currently serves on the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference. She is a past member and officer of the Gus. J. Solomon American Inn of Court, has served as chair of the Oregon State Bar Uniform Civil and Criminal Jury Instructions Committees and the 9th Circuit Jury Instructions and Jury Trial Improvement Committees, and is a founding member of Oregon Women Judges in conjunction with Oregon Women Lawyers and the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society.

While working full-time as a 911 operator, Brown earned her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. Attending law school at night, she earned a J.D. from Northwestern School of Law (now Lewis & Clark Law School). She served as law clerk to Multnomah County Circuit Judge John C. Beatty, Jr.

Congratulations to Judge Brown on a well-deserved honor.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, something far less than honor was falling on Houston Justice of the Peace Hilary Green, who was suspended by the Texas Supreme Court amid allegations that she engaged in sexting in the courtroom, hired prostitutes, used her bailiff to buy drugs, and brought home marijuana seized from a defendant.

Green’s lawyer, Chip Babcock, responded to the suspension by noting that Green had been reelected many times by the voters.  “She’s very popular in the precinct,” he said.

Sigh.

 

The precise cost of a new judgeship

The Unified Courts of Guam have made their budget request for 2018, which includes line items for adding a new Superior Court judge.  The court system estimates that the cost of adding a new judge (which includes salary, staff, courtroom facilities, and supplies) will be $397,537.

The proposed judicial budget would make up a little over 5 percent of Guam’s overall governmental budget for 2018.

A curious string of recusals in a New Mexico corruption case

One by one, eight state trial judges have recused themselves from presiding over a criminal case against a former New Mexico state senator.  Phil Griego was indicated in June on 22 counts, including perjury and embezzlement.  Among other things, Griego is alleged to have spent funds from his re-election account after resigning from the state senate in March 2015.

None of the eight judges identified a specific reason for recusing themselves from the case, with each indicating only “good cause” for the recusal.   The Santa Fe New Mexican reports:

Former state Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna said one factor in the decision by so many Santa Fe judges to recuse themselves from Griego’s case might have been their role lobbying legislators for court funding.

If the need to obtain court funds from the legislature compromises judges to this extent,  interdependence can become a danger to the administration of justice.