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.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals introduces courtroom cameras

Thanks to recent state legislation, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will began posting video of oral arguments online later this year. The legislation may also open the door for the state’s highest court for criminal matters to broadcast some oral arguments live.

The members of the court do not sound particularly thrilled about the move, although they are trying to maintain a neutral stance now that the legislation has gone through.  Said Presiding Judge Sharon Keller: “We decided years ago that we don’t want cameras in courtroom, but a lot of those judges are gone now, and I don’t know what the new judges think. But it does seem to be the wave of the future.”

Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson strongly supported the move, which also increases pressure on the United States Supreme Court to permit video recording of its oral arguments.

Continue reading “Texas Court of Criminal Appeals introduces courtroom cameras”

Minnesota adds two judgeships to keep up with case filings

Just yesterday I noted the impact of increased case filings on state courts in Washington.  The State of Minnesota has also recently experienced significant increases in filings, especially in major criminal cases and child protection cases.  In response, the Minnesota legislature has authorized two new judgeships to help alleviate the burden.

The courts helped themselves in this instance by keeping careful statistics on caseload growth, which added meaningful support to their request for new judges.

Pennsylvania legislators push for merit selection of state judges

State Representatives Bryan Cutler and Madeleine Dean have proposed an amendment to the Pennsylvania  constitution that would eliminate direct elections for state appellate judges.  Instead, judges would be chosen by merit selection.  Under the plan, a 13-member panel would choose five nominees for a judicial vacancy, and send that list to the governor. The governor would then select one of the five nominees, and the state senate would confirm the final selection.  Judges would then face periodic retention elections.  The proposal mirrors many of the best qualities of existing merit selection systems.

Similar bills have been proposed in the past (including many by Rep. Cutler), without much success.  But you can’t move the needle if you don’t keep trying, and Pennsylvania’s direct elections of judges have not been anything to write home about.  Good luck to the proponents this time around.

Kentucky’s failed attempt at judicial redistricting — and what it means for the rest of the country

I reported three months ago on a judicial redistricting bill that passed the Kentucky Senate, and seemed destined to pass. It would have reallocated judgeships within the state for the first time in 124 years. But the bill eventually died in the House.

Governing has an excellent post-mortem, noting:

Kentucky’s experience illustrates a problem that many state legislatures have faced: Even when most lawmakers recognize a need to address a judicial workload imbalance, they may not be willing to fix it if it means the communities they represent would lose judges. At least three states have tried to tackle the issue in the past few years, and none has successfully implemented a plan yet.

For anyone interested in pressures placed on legislators and the related impact on courts, the entire article is a must-read.