Iowa judge allowed attorneys to ghost write “a couple hundred” orders and opinions

A recently retired Iowa trial judge has admitted that “a couple hundred” of his orders and opinions were ghost-written by the prevailing attorneys. Many of Judge Edward Jacobson’s requests for draft rulings were privately communicated by email.

Trial judges at all levels frequently deal with workload crunch by asking both parties to draft proposed findings and fact and conclusions of law. This is a sensible allocation of labor, since the parties and their attorneys are the most familiar with the underlying facts, and drafting orders is time-intensive. It is commonly understood among litigators that a well-drafted set of proposed findings can provide the bulk of a court’s subsequent order.

But judicial requests for proposed findings should be made on the record, in open court. Ex parte communications of the kind Judge Jacobson apparently engaged in suggest a breach of judicial ethics, or at minimum remarkable irresponsibility.

The state court administrator is investigating the matter, and has ordered that the judge’s emails be preserved for at least seven months.


Investigation will continue against Canadian judge who removed woman from courtroom for wearing hijab

Quebec’s Judicial Council will proceed with an investigation of Judge Eliana Marengo, who is charged with refusing to hear a case after a litigant in her courtroom refused to remove her hijab. According to news reports:

In 2015, Marengo refused to hear a case involving Rania El-Alloul because the latter refused to remove her Islamic head scarf while in the courtroom.

El-Alloul was violating a Quebec law stipulating people must be “suitably dressed” in the courtroom, Marengo said at the time.

“In my opinion, you are not suitably dressed,” Marengo told El-Alloul, according to court documents. “Decorum is important. Hats and sunglasses, for example, are not allowed. And I don’t see why scarves on the head would be either.

“I will therefore not hear you if you are wearing a scarf on your head, just as I would not allow a person to appear before me wearing a hat or sunglasses on his or her head, or any other garment not suitable for a court proceeding.”

Incredibly, Judge Marengo’s defense for this behavior is judicial independence.

Dear Judge Marengo: Judicial independence is essential to assure that judges follow the law and provide an impartial forum for the resolution of disputes. It is not designed to justify or protect boorish behavior from the bench. To tie judicial independence to the mistreatment of litigants in your courtroom is to tarnish everything that concept stands for.

Good grief.


West Virginia’s appellate court crisis

Odd things are happening on the West Virginia Supreme Court.

On February 16, Chief Justice Allen Loughry was demoted and replaced as chief by Justice Margaret Workman. The unusual move, which followed a vote by the court’s other members, was apparently precipitated by a spending scandal. The court system spent more than $360,000 on Loughry’s office space since he joined the court in 2013, including a $32,000 couch. Loughry and the state court administrator pointed fingers at each other. The administrator has since been fired. In light of the crisis, the state senate voted to assume immediate legislative oversight of the judicial branch’s budget.

Shortly before these events transpired, Loughry also undertook a massive administrative reorganization of the West Virginia court system, consolidating 27 court divisions into only six. Several court administrators lost senior positions, and at least two supreme court justices strongly opposed the move. Justice Robin Davis told a reporter:

“I voted against the Court’s most recent Administrative Office reorganization for two critical and distinct reasons…. First, there is an appalling lack of clarity in the newly structured Court Services Division because there is no longer a distinct chain of command for each of the different types of courts comprising the judiciary.

“Collapsing magistrate courts, drug courts, family courts, and circuit courts under the same umbrella of supervision will severely hamper and drastically delay response time in answering critical questions and responding to the needs of these courts.

The “purported efficiency” of streamlining the division will in fact, actually restrict citizens’ access to justice and judicial resources, she stated.

As this crisis unfolds, legislators are separately debating whether to add an intermediate court of appeals to the state judiciary. West Virginia is one of only nine states without an intermediate appellate court, meaning that all appeals must be heard by the state supreme court, or not at all. Republicans in the legislature are pushing the change, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

There are many advantages to adding an intermediate appellate court. For one, it would streamline the supreme court’s workload. It also carries the potential to lower the stakes of electing supreme court justices: if the supreme court were not the only appellate body in West Virginia, major donors would have less incentive to finance supreme court candidates. (And the historical corruption on the West Virginia Supreme Court as a direct result of election financing is well documented.) Of course, the same problem might just be manifested in the intermediate appellate court as well, but there is at least a chance for reform. Against these advantages is the cost: the tag for a new appellate court would be many millions of dollars.

It will be fascinating to see how these developments play out.  Can/will structural reform to the West Virginia courts bring an air of ethical reform as well?

Nigeria’s top anti-corruption judge charged with corruption

Oh, dear.  From the Deutsche Welle story:

Nigeria’s top anti-corruption judge, tasked with high-profile cases, has himself been charged with illegally accepting money. The country’s anti-graft body accused Danladi Umar of demanding a bribe from a suspect.

Judge Danladi Umar allegedly demanded 10 million nairas (€22,300; $27,800)  from a suspect “for a favor to be afterward shown to him concerning the pending charge,” according to court papers seen by various news outlets.

The embattled Umar, who is the head of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), was also alleged to have received, through the intermediary of his assistant, the sum of 1.8 million nairas from the same accused in 2012 “in connection with the pending case before him.”


Nigerians reacted angrily at the news of the corruption charges against one of the country’s top judges.

“I’m not surprised about the corruption allegations against Danladi Umar. Corruption is like a tradition in the judiciary system,” Mayowa Adebola, a resident in Lagos, told DW. “You don’t have any reason to doubt corruption in the Code of Conduct Tribunal given their records, even though they have tried several high-profile corruption cases in the past,” he added.

Another resident, Yomi Olagoke, said, “The allegations against Umar are quite serious, and it boils down to how our anti-corruption bodies are set up and run,” adding that for many Nigerians, holding an anti-corruption post was an opportunity to make money.


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”

Chicago judge ordered to retire after letting her clerk take the bench

In a sad and bizarre story, the Illinois Courts Commission ordered Chicago judge Valarie Turner to retire on Friday, after an investigation found that Turner had given her judicial robe to her clerk and allowed the clerk to preside over several traffic court cases in August 2016.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times:

Circuit Judge Valarie E. Turner has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is “mentally unable to perform her duties,” according to a complaint filed Thursday by the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board.

Turner allowed law clerk Rhonda Crawford to take her seat behind the bench and rule on several traffic cases last August after introducing her to a prosecutor as “Judge Crawford,” the board contends.

“We’re going to switch judges,” Turner allegedly said during an afternoon court call, before standing up and giving her judicial robe to Crawford.

It appears that Turner’s current mental condition made her forced retirement a fairly straightforward decision for the Board. But it’s entirely unclear why Crawford would play along with this charade, and she has lost her law license as a result.