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.



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.

Some thoughts on the Wendy Vitter nomination

I am quoted toward the end of this NOLA.com 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”

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.