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.)


What just happened? January 2018 roundup

The month in a nutshell: the federal courts grapple with employee misconduct, while the state courts ask for more resources and offer more transparency.

The start of a new year is a time of formal reflection for American courts, and this year those reflections took a serious tone. In his 2017 Year-End Report, Chief Justice Roberts promised to establish a working group to review of the federal courts’ workplace conduct, and the members of that working group were announced two weeks later. A more curious announcement, issued on the eve of the brief federal government shutdown, assured the public that the courts could operate for three weeks without additional funding. The courts remained officially silent on the President’s federal judicial nominees, but it was encouraging to see that those positions are slowly being filled with seemingly qualified candidates.

Meanwhile, most state chief justices were preparing State of the Judiciary remarks for their respective legislatures. This is typically a time to request needed resources for the courts, and in some instances the lack of sufficient resources was a persistent theme. In Iowa, Chief Justice Mark Cady sounded the warning that budget cuts were straining the courts’ ability to provide efficient and effective access to justice. In Missouri, Chief Justice Zel Miller lobbied the legislature to place drug treatment courts in every county.

Other state courts made moves to increase transparency and public access.  The Florida Supreme Court announced that it would broadcast (and archive) all oral arguments on Facebook Live, and Minnesota came closer to allowing cameras in its courtrooms on a permanent basis.

What should we expect for February?  State election season is ramping up, federal judicial nominations continue, and India’s judicial crisis will not abate.  More on these issues in the coming weeks.


Some thoughts on the Wendy Vitter nomination

I am quoted toward the end of this 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”

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.

Federal court working group on workplace conduct announced

In his Year-End Report, Chief Justice Roberts announced that the federal courts would be forming a working group on workplace conduct, a reaction to the recent scandal involving Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski as well as workplace harassment scandals in prominent industries nationwide.  The membership of the working group has now been announced.  It includes:

James Duff, Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts

Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard, First Circuit Court of Appeals

Judge M. Margaret McKeown, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

Chief Judge Julie A. Robinson, U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas

Judge Sarah S. Vance, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

Margaret Weigand, Chief Executive, Third Circuit Court of Appeals

Jeffrey Minear, Counselor to the Chief Justice

John Cooke, Deputy Director of the Federal Judicial Center

The working group will eventually issue its findings in a written report.