West Virginia legislature clears path to investigate state judiciary

The West Virginia House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill that would allow the House Committee on the Judiciary to investigate allegations of malpractice and criminal activity by members of the state Supreme Court of Appeals. The investigation could lead to the impeachment of one or more of the Supreme Court justices.

More on the allegations against the Justices, and especially former Chief Justice Allen Loughry (who was recently indicted by a federal grand jury on 22 counts of fraud and other malfeasance) here and here.

Pennsylvania Senate slips judicial reform into redistricting bill

The Pennsylvania Senate yesterday passed a significant redistricting bill that would redraw the maps both for the state legislature and the state’s representatives in Congress. Before the vote was taken, however, Senator Ryan Aument introduced an amendment that would also change the way Pennsylvanians vote for their appellate judges. The amendment calls for judges of the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court to be elected regionally rather than by statewide elections. The amendment passed, and did not seem to effect the passage of the final bill.

Sen. Aument later explained that his amendment would provide all areas of the state with representation on the appellate courts. Proponents also surmise that regional elections would increase voter turnout.

 

Rhode Island House passes magistrate bill

On Wednesday, the Rhode Island House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to create an unlimited number of new magistrate judges for its state court system. The bill was controversial, in that many of the state’s existing magistrates have been appointed outside of the prescribed process. State judges are supposed to be appointed through the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which provides opportunities for vetting and public input. Many magistrates, however, appear to have received their appointments as political favors.

As I noted previously, this is a tough spot for the Rhode Island court system. The additional magistrates will be welcomed to help with the courts’ work, but the court system as a whole could lose legitimacy if the public lacks confidence in the appointment process.

 

Former Israeli Supreme Court President defends private meetings with Prime Minister

Miriam Naor, the former President of Israel’s Supreme Court, recently gave a rare public interview in which she defended her private meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while serving on the Court. Naor maintained that she was appropriately discussing major legislation that would effect judicial branch operations. Critics argue that such meetings could compromise the integrity of a court that could eventually hear criminal charges against the Prime Minister.

This is a delicate thing. As I have noted regularly on this blog, most courts worldwide depend significantly on the other branches of their respective governments for resources and enabling legislation. It is both pragmatic and smart for the administrative head of a court system to share judicial concerns and perspectives with lawmakers. But closed-door meetings invite the perception of an improper, closer-then-arms-length relationship between the branches and their representatives.

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 legislature moves to restrict courtroom broadcasts

Minnesota’s courts recently completed a successful pilot program to allow broadcasts of  sentencing and related post-conviction hearings in criminal matters. The Minnesota Supreme Court has also shown strong support for opening its courtrooms to broadcasts in the public interest.

Some members of the state legislature, however, remain unconvinced. Yesterday, the House Public Safety Committee advanced a bill that would severely restrict the broadcast of sentencing hearings, unless everyone involved agrees in advance. The bill also would prohibit the use of state funds for audio or video coverage of criminal proceedings.

Sponsors of the bill argue that witnesses and victims may be reluctant to testify if cameras are running. That sentiment is understandable, but the bill itself is sorely misguided. Proceedings in an open courtroom reflect a careful balance between the rights and sensitivities of victims and witnesses, those of the accused or convicted, and those of the general public. Modern broadcasting tools do not upset this balance; they merely extend its reach outside the courthouse. Indeed, the current practice already prohibits broadcasts of victim statements, witness testimony, or the jury, while still permitting the public to witness the administration of justice.

Attorney Mark Anfinson, a proponent of courtroom broadcasts, nicely summarized the real benefits of the existing system: “What it does is it provides a reassurance, a catharsis, a demonstration of how the justice system works. And that has enormous value to the people whose court system it is, after all.”

Hear, hear. Hopefully the legislature will ultimately reject the bill and allow the state court system to continue serving the public interest by broadcasting certain hearings through both audio and video channels.

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?