Florida’s fight over filling a judicial vacancy

A curiously timed judicial retirement in Florida has spurred a lawsuit and a debate over whether the vacancy should be filled by the governor or the voters.

Robert Foster, a trial judge on the state’s Fourth Judicial Circuit, was expected to retire on January 7, 2019–the last day of his term. (Foster will have reached the state’s mandatory retirement age.) In April, however, Foster informed Governor Rick Scott that he will take retirement one week earlier, on December 31.

That one week makes a big difference. Normally when a Florida judge leaves on the final day of the term, his seat is filled by popular election. But the governor interpreted the December 31 retirement to be an “early” retirement, which would allow him to fill the seat by gubernatorial appointment. In early May, the Fourth Judicial Circuit’s Judicial Nominating Commission announced the vacancy and invited applications.

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Irish Cabinet assents to court plea for more judges

The Irish Cabinet has approved the appointment of four judges–three to the Court of Appeal and one to the High Court–after a personal plea from the new President of the Court of Appeal George Birmingham.

The appointments were made relatively smoothly, after Transport Minister Shane Ross assented to the decision. Ross has blocked appointments in the past and has pushed for a new Judicial Appointments Commission on the grounds that the appointment process itself is broken.

The desperate need for new judges to keep up with the courts’ work seemed to be key to the decision:

[T]hree things have diminished Mr Ross’s sway – the pressing need for more judges in some courts, without which court business has been seriously affected; the lack of support for Mr Ross among his Independent Alliance colleagues, who have made it clear to him and to the rest of their Government colleagues that while they support Mr Ross, they are not prepared to make it an issue which threatens the future of the Government; and the advent as Minister of Charlie Flanagan, who is of a less patient nature than his predecessor Frances Fitzgerald.

Mr Flanagan has made it clear that if the courts need judges, he sees it as his responsibility to bring nominations to Government.

On the Aaron Persky recall

Today, California voters go to the polls to determine whether Judge Aaron Persky should be recalled. Persky, of course, is known for handing an extraordinarily light sentence to Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of three counts of sexual assault.

Turner’s conduct was unconscionable, and his sentence shockingly light. But the effort to recall Persky for that single act of sentencing is itself an awful idea that should have been put down long ago. Here is what I wrote last July:

Turner’s actions were hideous, and it is certainly understandable why a light sentence would be greeted with surprise and even outrage.  And Judge Persky’s standard defense–that any challenge to his discretion would compromise judicial independence–sounds almost ridiculous in this context.  But the recall effort is still a terrible idea.

Judicial recall, non-retention, and impeachment are all tempting weapons of the outraged class who seek to remove or punish a judge for a single controversial decision. California is no stranger to this sort of activity. In 1986, three state supreme court justices were successfully targeted for non-retention based on a single decision the court had rendered on the death penalty. Across the country, similar efforts have targeted judges for their decisions on everything from same-sex marriage to the disposition of property. Attacks have come both from the left and the right. The unifying theme of these efforts has been to try to wedge a judge’s entire career into a single decision. Never do they even attempt to consider or reflect upon the judge’s overall performance, skill, or temperament.

That is because efforts such as this serve one purpose: to score political points. Sometimes the goal is to drive voters to the polls in a general election to improve a political party’s overall prospects. Sometimes the goal is tactical, to create an opening on the bench that could be filled by a politically like-minded politician. Sometimes it reflects a deep misunderstanding of the judge’s ruling. Sometimes it is mere virtue signalling.

So it is here.  I have seen nothing to indicate that those seeking to recall Judge Persky have ever previously expressed concern about his fitness as a judge. He has already been cleared of any abuse of discretion by a state commission. And while a comprehensive judicial performance evaluation program would provide helpful context on Judge Persky’s overall body of work, California has no such program.

One can be shocked and angered by the Brock Turner sentence and still see this recall effort as for what it is: a transparent and poorly thought-out effort to score points with a political base. Californians deserve better.

Mob justice is no justice. Will Californians preserve judicial independence (flawed as it may be) against the wrath of the mob, or will they sacrifice their judicial system to the political vultures? Today I am hopeful, if not terribly optimistic, that they will do the right thing.

Rhode Island state courts to receive new magistrates, but not without controversy

The Rhode Island court system recently received good news when the state’s House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would allow the Chief Judge of the District Court to appoint an unspecified number of new magistrates. Currently, the District Court is operating with only two magistrates.

But the bill’s advance remains controversial. Other judges in the state are vetted by a nominating commission before being appointed by the governor. And over the past 25 years, many of the magistrates who were appointed outside the political process have had political connections. (Indeed, many are former legislators.) Can Rhode Island balance the resource needs of its court system against political patronage concerns that could erode the courts’ legitimacy?

Two new justices appointed to Israel Supreme Court

Two nominees for Israel’s Supreme Court were confirmed this week.  Alex Stein, a Brooklyn Law professor who was born in the Soviet Union, will join current Tel Aviv District Court judge Ofer Grosskopf on the country’s highest court. They will replace Yoram Dinziger and Uri Shoham, whose terms end later this year.

The nominations were not without controversy. Stein has lived in the United States for the past 14 years (he previously lived in Israel), but has a reputation as a conservative and was strongly supported by current Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The confirmations also came just a week after another Tel Aviv District Court judge, Khaled Kabub, withdrew his candidacy for the Supreme Court. Kabub, an Israeli Arab and a Muslim, faced stiff confirmation headwinds after another Israeli Arab, George Kara, was appointed to the court last year.

 

Courts under water in India and Kenya

I have previously documented recent threats to the proper functioning of the court systems of India and Kenya. In India, appalling delays and overflowing dockets, combined with strife at the highest levels of the judiciary, have undermined with the effectiveness of the system and overall public confidence. Now, unfortunately, related news has been announced: the country’s lower courts face almost 6,000 judicial vacancies. Even for a country of more than one billion people, that number is shocking.

Kenya has faced a different set of challenges in recent months, after its Supreme Court invalidated a presidential election and was subjected to ongoing threats and attacks. This week’s news is of a less violent sort, but one that is perhaps even more problematic for the judiciary: more than 50,000 cases in the court system have been pending for a decade or more. And the total case backlog stands at more than 315,000.

These stories keenly illustrate the idea of judicial interdependence: courts must operate fairly and efficiently to earn public confidence, and they need adequate resources to be able to do so. When courts are properly resourced and properly run, they earn confidence and more resources–a virtuous circle. But when they are poorly run or under attack, they become inefficient and lose both resources and legitimacy–a vicious circle. The Kenyan and Indian judiciaries are locked into the vicious circle right now.