Kansas weighs whether to shield the identity of jurors

Earlier this year, the Kansas District Judges Association proposed a bill that would shield the names of jurors from the public. The bill passed both houses of the Kansas legislature. But the Kansas Press Association challenged the bill before a final vote could be taken, arguing that the state courts had obligations of transparency, and that hiding the identity of jurors made it more difficult to hold the justice system accountable. The judges’ association agreed, and reached a compromise with the press association that would make jurors’ names and addresses available, but not other information about them. The changes are expected to be worked out in legislative conference committee.

This is a nice example of the courts and the press recognizing the difficulty of balancing individual privacy and public duty in the modern age, and working together to address the problem. There is no simple answer, and while a handful of states do shield the identity of jurors completely, the Kansas Press Association is correct that public obligations like jury duty require a degree of public accountability. If we want to maintain a public system of dispute resolution, every member of the public needs to take ownership of it in an appropriate way.

 

What just happened? April 2017 roundup

The month in a nutshell: judicial selection drama continues, and court systems work to improve access and efficiency even as individual judges make headlines for the wrong reasons

After the hurly-burly of Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings in March, one might have hoped for a calmer month of April on the judicial selection front. But high-profile stories continued at both the federal and state level. President Trump started to turn his attention to the more than 100 vacancies in the federal district and appellate courts, but unwisely rejected pre-selection vetting of nominees from the American Bar Association.  The President also left open whether he would consider suggested judicial nominees coming from bipartisan screening committees — an opportunity to foster some bipartisan agreement and smooth the nomination process for lower federal judges.

States which select judges through contested elections also experienced ongoing tumult, in the form of legislation and litigation.  And too many judges made the news for behaving unprofessionally. Continue reading “What just happened? April 2017 roundup”

Delaware works to improve its problem-solving courts

Many states have established “problem-solving courts” over the last two decades.  These are specialized courts whose mission goes beyond the standard determination of guilt  and punishment, and instead seeks to address the causes underlying problematic behaviors.  Across the country, problem-solving courts have been established to deal with (among other things) drug offenses, mental health issues, sex offenses, truancy, and gun violence.

The State of Delaware has recently undertaken its first internal evaluation of its problem-solving courts, and is now looking to streamline and consolidate some of their work.  In particular, the public report describing the evaluation recommends “a unified statewide treatment court.”  Unifying the state’s problem-solving courts, the report suggested, would also allow the judiciary and court administrators to address treatment and training issues more efficiently.

As the state courts continues to expand their reach beyond a traditional, arms-length adjudicative role, these types of analyses will be all the more important.  Delaware is said to be working with the National Center for State Courts and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals on this project, and hopefully the lessons gleaned from the project will work their way to other state court systems as well.

Nevada Supreme Court expands courtroom camera access to reality TV producers

Nevada’s state courts have long allowed access to news cameras, provided that the footage is used for informational or educational purposes.  Last week, the Nevada Supreme Court unanimously concluded that footage of a murder trial, which was recorded for a reality TV series about local prosecutors, fell within the “informational or educational” definition.

Used of the video was challenged by Michael Solid, whose murder trial was partially recorded by production company My Entertainment TV for use on “Las Vegas Law,” a cable reality show.  Solid argued that the video footage had a commercial advertising purpose rather than an information or educational one.  But the state supreme court rejected that argument, finding that “under the plain language” of the rule governing courtroom cameras, My Entertainment TV was a “news reporter.”

 

Trial ends in civil rights case challenging Louisiana’s judicial election districts

We previously reported on a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by a local chapter of the NAACP, alleging that the state’s current at-large voting system for state judges disadvantages minority groups.  The plaintiffs are seeking to replace the current system with a system of five single-member districts, one of which would be drawn to include a majority of African-American and other minority groups among its residents.

A bench trial began in mid-March, and both parties rested their cases on Friday.  The Daily Comet, a local Louisiana newspaper, has a good wrap-up of the dramatic testimony on the final day.  The decision now rests with U.S. District Judge James Brady, who has instructed both sides to file post-trial briefs by June 8.  A decision is expected by August.

Suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to run for U.S. Senate

Roy Moore, the Alabama judge best known for his position on placing the Ten Commandments inside state courthouses, abruptly resigned his position as Chief Justice yesterday in order to run for the United States Senate.  Moore’s resignation was essentially a technicality; he was suspended from his judgeship last year for a variety of ethics violations, and has not served on the state supreme court for months.

Moore is seeking the Senate seat currently held on an interim basis by former state attorney general Luther Strange.  Strange was appointed to the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions upon his confirmation as U.S. Attorney General.  In yet another twist, Strange was appointed by then-Governor Robert Bentley, who resigned in scandal just weeks ago.

Beyond the head-spinning number of scandals and vacancies, Moore’s decision to enter the race highlights a sometimes-overlooked aspect of judicial interdependence: many judges begin their careers as legislators, and many legislators begin their careers as judges.

Continue reading “Suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore to run for U.S. Senate”

New Chicago judge seeks to choose his own path

Like many organizations, court systems have deliberate processes for acculturating and training new members — a process sometimes referred to as “socialization.”  Forms of court socialization include formal processes like “baby judge” schools to provide training on opinion writing and docket management, as well as informal processes of acclimating new judges to the ins and outs of their jobs.

In Cook County, Illinois, part of the socialization and acclimation process involves assigning new judges to traffic court.  But Judge Richard Cooke, a former private practitioner who won an unopposed judicial election last November, rejected his traffic court assignment and apparently never reported for duty.  Judge Cooke claims a conflict of interest, alleging that he has financial stake in a car wash that cleans city-owned vehicles.  Other are not buying it:

Critics say the tempest is an illustration of all that’s wrong with selecting judges in Cook County — where cash and political connections at times carry more weight than temperament and ability. Daley Center judges say traffic court is the best place for a new judge to learn how to manage a courtroom, master a new area of law and do their job in a setting where the possible damage they can inflict is relatively minimal.

Former top federal prosecutor Carrie Hamilton, who helped prosecute ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, and former Winston & Strawn partner Raymond Mitchell both spent time in traffic court before moving into other assignments.

The court administration initially responded by assigning Judge Cooke only to conduct marriage ceremonies.  With the outcry continuing, however, this week the circuit court’s executive committee sent the issue to the state Judicial Inquiry Board.  This is the first step in a possible disciplinary action against Judge Cooke.  We will follow the story as it develops.