Illinois Supreme Court orders trial judge to stop sealing all filings in high-profile murder case

Judge Vincent Gaughan, who is presiding over a high-profile case involving the police shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald, ordered that the attorneys for both sides file all motions and briefs directly with him. Late last week, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed with Gaughan’s policy, ordering the judge to stop requiring the sealing of all documents.

The media covering the case is understandably pleased with the ruling.

Public defenders walk out of NYC courts to protest ICE raids, are replaced with private attorneys

The New York Times reports on a walkout by some New York City public defenders, who left their jobs while court was still in session yesterday in order to protest courthouse arrests by federal immigration authorities. It was the second such walkout this week. Having warned the PDs not to leave their posts while court was in session, court administrators quickly reassigned ten cases to private attorneys. From the story:

The public defense organizations saw it as punishment for political advocacy; court administrators saw it as a matter of keeping the courts running.

“We say, ‘By you doing what you did, you are disrupting operations,’” said Lucian Chalfen, the spokesman for the O.C.A. “We won’t have that. It helps no one.”

The Legal Aid society argues that the reassignments were retaliatory, but at first blush it seems that the court administrators were in the right. Their job is to keep the criminal justice system moving, and assure that indigent defendants are adequately represented. Whatever one thinks of the policies motivating the walkout, the primary harm of the walkout is to the clients who need representation right then and there. Nor was the walkout directly tied to the PDs’ ability to represent their clients in New York State court; there was no direct benefit to their clients.* That this was the second walkout this week, and the fifth this year, justifies the court’s firm response.

* I recognize the argument that many of the PDs’ clients are the very people most susceptible to ICE raids. So there is certainly some overlap between the policies motivating the walkout and the needs of defendants who need public defenders. But the relationship is still indirect, and ultimately too tangential to warrant direct and continued disruption of court operations.

Canada’s federal criminal reform bill put on hold

A bill that would introduce a wide range of reforms into Canada’s federal criminal justice system has been tabled. Among other things, Bill C-75 would:

  • Take measures to decrease significant court delays;
  • Eliminate peremptory challenges of jurors;
  • Remove “zombie” parts of the criminal code that have been found unconstitutional; and
  • Increase the maximum sentence for repeat domestic abusers.

We will continue to keep an eye on the bill’s progress, if any, in the coming months.

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.

New Orleans judge: “We do not feel secure” in own courthouse

A Louisiana state judge has publicly stated that she and her colleagues “do not feel secure” in the New Orleans criminal courthouse, citing a dwindling police presence and lax security measures at courthouse entrances.

Previously, at least three unarmed deputies usually were in place to supervise significant numbers of inmates, keep order over audiences and issue subpoenas upon judges’ orders. Recently there have been only two per courtroom, or on rare occasions one.

Officers of the court — such as attorneys and clerk staff — also generally are waved through metal detectors at the court’s two public entrances without being subjected to a search of their person or belongings. [Judge] Flemings-Davillier said that, too, needs to change.

“We are asking the sheriff’s office to reinforce the rules that we already have,” she said, “because they have been lax and we have had some security issues.”

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has stated that it is unaware of any specific threats or incidents that should make courthouse personnel uneasy.

The effects of dropping bail bond practice

Back in May, I flagged an interesting story about state courts radically revising the cash bail system for criminal defendants. The changes were notable in part because bail is a quintessentially American practice, and a classic example of the court system’s interdependence. In an op-ed today, Walter Olson argues that revisions to the bail system may also have had the unintended effect of causing judges to hold more criminal defendants in jail pending trial:

An early report in March by Kelsi Loos in the Frederick News-Post found that since October the share of Maryland defendants held without bail had increased from 10% to 14%. The Washington Post later reported that from September 2016 to May the figure had jumped from 7% to 15%.

Meanwhile, fewer released defendants are showing up for trial. The Post, confirming anecdotal reports, writes that the “failure to appear” rate in January was 14.5%, up five points from October. Failing to show up for court sets up a defendant for more-severe consequences down the road, which can include being held without bail.

At their core, principles of organizational independence teach that decisions have a wide range of ripple effects on all aspects of the organization.  As Olson notes, it is too early to say whether Maryland’s numbers reflect causation, statistical noise, or something in between.  But there should be little surprise that the decision to limit bail options, without providing other formal mechanisms to deal with moderate-level offenders, would lead to some noticeable changes in the way the system operates.

(Link may require subscription.)

Louisiana judge accused of helping pretrial services company extort poor defendants

The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of Louisiana, alleging that a Baton Rouge pretrial services company required hundreds of state inmates to pay “fees” far in excess of their court-ordered bail before they could be released from jail.  The lawsuit further alleges that the pretrial services company, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), was actively assisted by state judge Trudy White. RHI apparently supported Judge White’s 2014 re-election bid.

Although RHI has no formal contract with the state court system, Judge White allegedly ordered more than 300 criminal defendants to complete RHI’s services in 2015 and 2016–without ever inquiring into each defendant’s financial status. RHI subsequently charged the defendants hundreds of dollars in fees for its services–including a $525 “signup fee.” As a result, the suit alleges, hundreds of defendants were forced to languish in jail while friends and family scrambled to raise the needed money.

At this point, these are only allegations.  But we will follow this lawsuit closely.  The caption is Ayo et al. v. Dunn. et al., Case No. 3:17-cv-526.