North Carolina judicial selection update

It has been a while since I wrote about the political wrangling between North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and the state legislature over the selection of state judges. But a lot has been going on.

Some background: North Carolina primarily elects its judges, with the governor filling vacancies on an interim basis as they occur. But there seems to be a general consensus that the current process is not functioning well. Contested (now partisan) elections, political gamesmanship with respect to filling judicial vacancies, and outworn judicial districts all have contributed to the malaise. The issue has become a flashpoint in recent months, in part because of a widely publicized tug-of-war between the state’s courts and its Republican legislature. The court system has struck down many significant pieces of legislation in recent months, leading to loud complaints from legislators.

In the last several weeks, under the guise of judicial reform, the state legislature has passed two bills that would radically remake the state’s judicial selection process–and with it, the state’s judiciary.

Continue reading “North Carolina judicial selection update”

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Ohio to consider shielding judges’ personal information from the public

In the wake of the shooting of state judge Joseph Bruzzese on the steps of the Steubenville courthouse in August, the Ohio legislature has introduced a bipartisan bill to shield judges’ personal information from the public. The bill is still in its very early stages.

It is not hard to see why a bill like this might be necessary, but that realization is tinged with sadness. Judges are most effective when they are full members of the community, enjoying the same pleasures (and suffering the same indignities) as ordinary citizens. Grocery shopping, attending community events, waiting in line at the DMV, and similar activities foster an appreciation for everyday life that a judge needs to be an effective mediator, problem-solver, and voice for the community. When our judges are too cut off from the public, or exist in elite bubbles, they cannot have that effectiveness.

The benefits here of keeping a judge’s personal information from the public may well outweigh the costs. But we should be careful not to create a slippery slope in which the public and its judges lose critical opportunities for normal, everyday interaction.

Wyoming raises court fees to pay for technology upgrades

The technology in Wyoming’s state courts is reportedly in terrible shape, ranging from extremely outdated to nonexistent. Half the courtrooms lack adequate power, and 80 percent lack digital capacity for video and videoconferencing.  In response, the state legislature has approved an increase in court fees to fund technological improvements.  The affected fees are primarily “automation fees” associated with filing a case, and moderately increased monetary penalties for a felony conviction.

 

Jordanian government moves closer to passing judicial independence bill

The Jordanian Senate’s Legal Committee has endorsed a bill that would give the country’s judiciary an independent budget and improve the judicial appointment process.  The marked bill now goes back to the Lower House for review, and to rationalize any inconsistencies between the two versions.

Budgetary independence is a central, and often overlooked, component of judicial independence.  Courts are already dependent on other arms of the government for funding; to also be restricted in how the money is spent creates the obvious risk of quid pro quo justice.  Budgetary independence was a major project for the United States Courts in the first part of the twentieth century, and it finally met with success in the 1930s.  Other jurisdictions around the world are right to seek the same, and the Jordanian legislature is right to grant it here.

Poland passes judicial reform bill, placing EU voting rights in jeopardy

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Yesterday, the lower house of the Polish legislature passed a highly controversial reform bill that gives the executive branch enormous power to select and remove judges, including the entire Supreme Court. The Polish senate is expected to approve the bill today, and President Andrzej Duda is expected to sign the bill shortly thereafter.

The bill has drawn criticism from both domestic and international circles, where it is widely seen as a threat to judicial independence and the rule of law. During the parliamentary debate, opposition leader Grzegorz Schetyna accused the ruling Law and Justice Party of “destroying Poles’ right to an independent court … destroying the foundations of freedom, of parliamentary democracy.” Thousands of people rallied against the bill in Warsaw last Monday, and another major protest took place yesterday. Now the European Union is threatening to strip Poland of its voting rights within that organization.

Law and Justice (PiS) has argued that the reforms are needed because the Polish judiciary continues to operate along communist-era lines, and ordinary citizens do not feel that “the system is on their side.”  Critics see this justification as a naked power grab which effectively places all three branches of the Polish government under the control of a single party.

When arguments are clothed in the language of populism, it is often difficult to assess their accuracy and sincerity. I have no doubt that the Polish people are still scarred by two generations of communist rule, but a widespread judicial overhaul that consolidates power in the hands of a select few hardly seems like a serious effort to restore the judiciary to the people. This editorial underscores the point.

Still, I welcome anyone with a more intimate knowledge of Polish politics or this particular legislation to offer thoughts on the legislature’s motives in the comments.

More reaction to Poland’s judicial reform

Several news outlets have reported on the protests yesterday regarding the Polish government’s proposed reform of the judiciary.  Some examples of coverage can be found here, here, and here.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg News offers up a detailed analysis of the reform proposals here.  I cannot speak for the credibility of the author, but it appears to be a useful read.

New York appellate court affirms restrictions on juror anonymity

Under New York law, trial judges may withhold jurors’ addresses from the public and the parties if there is a concern for juror safety. The judge, however, may not withhold the names of jurors. A purely anonymous jury is thought to compromise due process for criminal defendants.

The New York Times reports that a state appellate court recently upheld these restrictions.  In a criminal trial involving four members of an alleged street gang, the trial court declined to provide juror names to counsel, identifying jurors only by number.  Defense lawyers objected, but the trial judge cited to jurors in previous cases who had expressed concerns about their safety. The defendants appealed.

This week, the appeals court sided with the defendants and granted them a new trial, holding that the trial court had violated the statute’s prohibition on purely anonymous juries.