New York appellate court affirms restrictions on juror anonymity

Under New York law, trial judges may withhold jurors’ addresses from the public and the parties if there is a concern for juror safety. The judge, however, may not withhold the names of jurors. A purely anonymous jury is thought to compromise due process for criminal defendants.

The New York Times reports that a state appellate court recently upheld these restrictions.  In a criminal trial involving four members of an alleged street gang, the trial court declined to provide juror names to counsel, identifying jurors only by number.  Defense lawyers objected, but the trial judge cited to jurors in previous cases who had expressed concerns about their safety. The defendants appealed.

This week, the appeals court sided with the defendants and granted them a new trial, holding that the trial court had violated the statute’s prohibition on purely anonymous juries.

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Philadelphia Bar’s judicial recommendations make an impact with voters

The Philadelphia Bar Association has published recommendations to voters on local judicial candidates for decades. This year, for the first time, it handed out a list of recommended candidates at selected polling places attempted to measure whether those recommendations made an impact.  The news was encouraging:

The Bar Association’s presence increased the gap between recommended and not recommended Common Pleas candidates by about 0.4 percent at the 41 polling locations, a significant impact in an election where winners needed just over 4 percent of the vote. Had the Bar Association placed volunteers all over the city, only one not-recommended judge would have won, as opposed to the three that actually did.

Some important caveats: the study was geographically limited, and several candidates who were not recommended were still elected (they were all placed in the first column on ballots). Moreover, at a time in American history when distrust of expertise is so high, some portion of the public seems likely to vote against the bar’s recommendations simply because they came from attorneys. And bar recommendations are only needed because Pennsylvania continues to insist on electing its judges in the first place. But overall, this is good news. I hope the bar association can come up with the resources to expand its distribution program for the next election cycle.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals introduces courtroom cameras

Thanks to recent state legislation, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will began posting video of oral arguments online later this year. The legislation may also open the door for the state’s highest court for criminal matters to broadcast some oral arguments live.

The members of the court do not sound particularly thrilled about the move, although they are trying to maintain a neutral stance now that the legislation has gone through.  Said Presiding Judge Sharon Keller: “We decided years ago that we don’t want cameras in courtroom, but a lot of those judges are gone now, and I don’t know what the new judges think. But it does seem to be the wave of the future.”

Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson strongly supported the move, which also increases pressure on the United States Supreme Court to permit video recording of its oral arguments.

Continue reading “Texas Court of Criminal Appeals introduces courtroom cameras”

Reform Party files challenge to mandatory judicial retirement age in New York

New York’s Reform Party has filed a challenge to the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges. City and State New York has a detailed and well-balanced article on the lawsuit and the hurdles it faces.  Key bits:

Vincent Bonventre, an expert on judical matters in New York and a professor at Albany Law School, agreed that judges should be able to serve past the age of 70, saying that many of them are just reaching their peak at that stage in terms of experience and perspective. But the lawsuit has little chance of finding success, he said.

Bonventre pointed to decisions in the New York state Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court that have upheld age limits for judges. Additionally, New York’s state constitution specifically provides for a mandatory retirement age. In 2013, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have raised the retirement age to 80 for state Supreme Court justices and extended the terms of several Court of Appeals judges fell short.

“It’s not even that the New York courts can take an independent state constitutional perspective on this thing, because the state constitution itself provides for this mandatory retirement age,” Bonventre said. “The state courts, in order to overturn mandatory retirement age, would have to do it under federal law.”

To steal a phrase from the blogosphere, read the whole thing.

Dear fellow citizen: please don’t use bomb threats to get out of a court date

This is one of those stories that makes you wince:

Courthouse officials are using a weekend arrest in a bomb threat case to warn others not to make the same mistake.

Spartanburg County [South Carolina] Clerk of Court Hope Blackley said people sometimes will attempt to get out of their court hearings by calling in bomb threats to the courthouse, forcing the building to evacuate and shut down operations.

Such actions add to the burden on an already strained judicial system and can inconvenience hundreds of other people who have rearranged their schedules to accommodate a court appearance.

“It’s a costly, logistical nightmare first and foremost, and taxpayer dollars are being wasted,” Blackley said. “The court docket is already backed up. We need every minute we can to have court be operable. It’s a huge injustice for folks who want and need their cases to be heard.”

The courthouse can be a difficult place for many people, and it is understandable why some would feel reluctant to enter that space  After all, issues affecting personal liberty, property, and relationships are determined there on a daily basis. But that is no excuse for terrifying and disrupting the lives of hundreds of other people. My goodness.

New York courts prepare to combat opioid overdoses

The New York Law Journal reports that each court in the state will receive an overdose prevention kit containing naloxone (Narcan) and other related medical materials.  Court personnel will receive formal training in the use of the kits as well.

This is a forward-looking and sensible response to the national opioid crisis, and a good example of courts taking seriously their role as forums that serve all members of the community.

Alexis de Tocqueville on American courts

“An American judge … cannot compel the people to make laws, but at least he can constrain them to be faithful to their own laws and remain in harmony with themselves.”

“I am aware of a hidden tendency in the United States leading the people to diminish judicial power; under most of the state constitutions the government can, at the request of both houses, remove a judge from office. Under some constitutions the judges are elected and subject to frequent reelection. I venture to predict that sooner or later these innovations will have dire results and that one day it will be seen that by diminishing the magistrates’ independence, not judicial power only but the democratic republic itself has been attacked.”

“I do not know whether a jury is good for litigants, but I am sure it is very good for those who have to decide the case. I regard it as one of the most effective means of popular education at society’s disposal.”

— Selected from Democracy in America (13th ed. 1850)