Brooklyn judicial candidates accuse local party chief of holding illegal fundraiser for their opponents

I have previously discussed the candidacies of five Brooklyn residents who are running for judge, but refuse to go through the selection system dominated by Democratic Party bosses. In the latest twist in the story, a spokesman for the five candidates has accused local party boss Frank Seddio of hosting a “illegal” fundraiser for the party’s preferred candidates on August 23.

Surely some of this is an effort to stay in the news cycle, but the accusations of spokesman Gary Tilzer are still damning:

Seddio, an attorney, sent the red, white and blue invite to more than 185 people — including sitting judges, judicial candidates, attorneys, developers, politicians, lobbyists and members of the Judicial Screening Committee. The invite vaguely touts fund-raising “to support our contested countywide candidates.”

It doesn’t specify the candidates who will benefit or the election that’s involved.

***

Guests were instructed to write their $500 to $5,000 checks out to the Kings County Democratic County Committee, an account that’s controlled by the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and mail them to Seddio’s home address, according to the letter.

Tilzer’s three-page letter to the committees said Seddio’s fund-raising efforts violate the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct and are unethical on seven points, including not disclosing who the event benefits, inviting sitting judges to contribute and, since the beneficiaries aren’t named, having judicial candidates raising money with potential nonjudicial candidates.

As I have noted before, those who are truly concerned about the influence of money in politics might want to start by shining a light on local hornet’s nests like these.

A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system

The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article yesterday on daily life at India’s largest courthouse, the Allahabad High Court. It tells a tale of extreme delay, extraordinary inefficiency, and basic injustice stemming from a lethal combination of judicial vacancies, outdated filing systems, and lax protocols for advancing cases to resolution. Among the facts presented in the article:

  • Nearly 45% of judicial positions on the court are unfilled, due in large part to an ongoing battle between the judiciary and the other branches of government about the most appropriate methods for judicial selection.
  • On average, it takes nearly four years to adjudicate a simple commercial dispute in India — twice as long as in Brazil and more than three times as long as in the United States.
  • More than 86% of high court cases in India take 10-15 years to adjudicate.  Fewer than 5% are resolved in less than five years.
  • The Allahabad High Court receives nearly 1,000 new cases every day.  Almost half are filed by the government.  Judges on the court even have a name for newly filed cases that have not even been looked at yet — “backlog fresh.”
  • It is so unpredictable which cases will be called on any given day that one lawyer profiled has associates spread out across all the courtrooms to track if — and when — any of his 34 open lawsuits on the court’s calendar might be taken up by a judge.
  • Even though rural litigants often have to travel a whole day to appear in court, it is commonplace that their cases will not be called and another day will be wasted.
  • The system encourages delay by allowing lawyers to file an “illness slip” to postpone a hearing, whether or not they are actually sick.
  • Case records are badly misfiled–piled on floors and chairs, and intermingled by year.  In the story, a worker searched eight hours for files for the next day’s cases, and was still missing 17 of 65 by day’s end.

This is a jaw-dropping account, the paragon of “justice delayed is justice denied.” What can we make of it?

Continue reading “A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system”

Ireland returns to established procedures to appoint new Chief Justice

After last month’s major controversy over an unusual process used to select a judge to its Court of Appeal, the Irish government has returned to established procedures to select its newest Chief Justice, Frank Clarke.  From the Irish Times:

The Government spokesman said the intention of the process was to “mirror the spirit” of new draft legislation governing judicial appointments, but “not to every detail”.

The Judicial Appointments Bill, which has been promoted by Mr Ross, will not become law until the autumn at the earliest.

Chief Justice Susan Denham is due to step down after six years as head of the judiciary, and 25 years on the Supreme Court, next month.

Previous coverage of the controversy here, here, here, and here.

On quiet judicial turnover

State judicial elections sometimes produce extreme cases of court turnover, either because interest groups target a group of judges for removal (something I explore in this article), or because an election frenzy sweeps out all (or virtually all) judges affiliated with a certain party (something I explore in more detail here). Such rapid turnover has significant consequences for the courts: the loss of institutional memory, the learning curve for an entire set of new judges, and sometimes radical changes in court culture can all result from an election sweep.

But judicial appointment systems are not immune from significant turnover as well, especially if they are combined with mandatory retirement ages. In a much quieter and more incremental way, an entire generation of state judges can be replaced by a  governor in the course of the few years. Massachusetts provides the most recent example: with yesterday’s confirmation of Scott Kafker to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, Governor Charlie Baker has now appointed five of the court’s seven members.

Incremental change avoids many of the problems of party sweeps, and carries many direct benefits. New blood and new energy come into the system, and institutional memory is generally preserved. But the frequency of new state judicial appointments is often given little attention. For all the emphasis placed on a President’s ability to reshape the federal judiciary, it is worth remembering that mandatory retirement ages (which exist in all but three states) give governors or legislatures even more power to shape their respective state courts.

Populism, politics, and the Polish courts

Several months’ worth of rumblings over the fate of the Polish judiciary came to a head this week when the country’s legislature debated a controversial judicial reform bill. Like the judicial crisis in Ireland that unfolded earlier this summer, the Polish controversy is worth unpacking and monitoring closely.

The reform bill discussed this week was shepherded through the legislature by the Law and Justice (PiS) Party, a populist, conservative party that has been in power since 2015. The bill would give legislators and the Justice Minister the power to appoint new judges without input from the judiciary. It would also create a new code of ethics for the country’s judges. A second bill would require all Supreme Court Justices to resign (unless permitted to stay by the Justice Minister), and new Justices appointed in their stead. The PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has justified the moves by saying that the country’s judiciary had not sufficiently reformed from its communist past, and that “radical changes” were needed.

Opposition leaders and other European observers have painted the bill as a power grab that would compromise judicial independence and threaten the rule of law, and have even asked for international oversight of the vote on the bill. On Sunday, thousands of protesters jammed the streets of Warsaw to protest the legislation.

What should observers make of this?

Continue reading “Populism, politics, and the Polish courts”

Unpacking the latest in the Maire Whelan controversy: proposed judicial appointments bill panned, government at risk

The controversial appointment of Maire Whelan to Ireland’s Court of Appeal continues to ruffle the country’s new government.  This week, Transport Minister Shane Ross proposed a bill to create a new Judicial Appointments Commission.  The new commission would have a majority of non-lawyer members, and would be chaired by a non-lawyer.  The commission would select final nominees, who would then be chosen by the government.

The bill immediately came under fire from Fianna Fail, the political party whose support is necessary to uphold the government’s confidence and supply agreement. The proposal was also publicly criticized by prominent members of the judiciary.

Continue reading “Unpacking the latest in the Maire Whelan controversy: proposed judicial appointments bill panned, government at risk”

North Carolina Chief Justice pushes merit selection for state judges

Speaking to the North Carolina Bar Association on Saturday, Chief Justice Mark Martin called for merit selection of all North Carolina judges:

Martin proposed that retention elections for Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges be held statewide and voters in individual judicial districts decide on District Court and Superior Court judges. The elections would be held after each term of office, which Martin said could be eight years or some other period.

This is an extraordinary statement, even in light of the ugly tug-of-war between North Carolina’s governor and state legislature over judicial selection in the last few months.  With most state judges ascending to the bench through an electoral process, his call for merit selection would remove the very system that gave him and his colleagues personal and professional success.

But that, of course, is exactly the point.  The North Carolina system is broken, and whatever democratic benefits direct elections of judges may serve now seem overshadowed by concerns that may reduce the judiciary’s public legitimacy.  Chief Justice Martin’s call for merit selection was a brave first step toward a better system of justice in the state.