Updates on cameras in the courtroom

This has been a busy week for policies governing the use of courtroom cameras.

  • Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Dick Durbin (D-IN) introduced S.643, which I have seen alternately referred to as the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2017 or the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2017.  The Act would require open proceedings in the United States Supreme Court to be televised.  Similar legislation has already been introduced in the House. Variations of this Act have been introduced for many years, without success.
  • Several media outlets declared this week “Sunshine Week,” leading to editorials calling for allowing cameras into both state and federal courtrooms.
  • On its own volition, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has started posting video of its oral arguments online. The always terrific Howard Bashman has the details in a new column for the Legal Intelligencer. The Third Circuit’s press release, which provides more context for its decision to make videos available,  is here.
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NC governor vetoes judicial election bill

I previously reported on a bill in the North Carolina legislature that would convert the state’s elections for trial judges into partisan races.  The practical effect would be that judicial candidates would first have to clear party primaries, and then would appear on the ballot with a party designation.

This was a bad idea, and Governor Roy Cooper has vetoed the bill.

Although Cooper is a Democrat and the North Carolina legislature is controlled by Republicans, the acknowledged inefficacy of partisan judicial elections is not itself a partisan issue.  Politicians and commentators from across the political spectrum agree that in the modern era, party labels for judicial candidates weaken the public legitimacy of the judiciary, offer little significant information to voters, and are at best extremely awkward for judges.  The North Carolina proposal was a step backward.

Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access

For the past five years, Texas’s Office of Court Administration has worked to develop a statewide online database of court filings. The database, called re:SearchTX, covers all 254 counties in the state and is intended to provide a unified, centralized system for access to court filings, similar to the PACER system used by the federal courts. Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has advocated for the new system, noting in particular its ability more quickly and inexpensively to self-represented litigants.

But a smooth launch of re:SearchTX has been stymied by the local courts themselves. And now a bill has been filed in the state House that would allow individual counties to opt out of the system, radically weakening its utility.

Continue reading “Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access”

Bill to restore partisan judicial elections passes North Carolina Senate

North Carolina used to select all of its state judges through partisan election.  Judicial candidates would have to win a party primary, and would appear on the ballot with a party designation.  In 1996, the state legislature eliminated the partisan designations for state superior court races, and in 2001 did the same for district courts.  Judges still face contested popular elections, but do not run under any party affiliation.

North Carolina’s move put it in good company.  While a handful of states still have partisan races, most states that still elect their judges long ago moved to a nonpartisan system.  Nonpartisan elections are certainly not foolproof, but deliberately omitting party affiliation from the ballot at least reinforces the message that voters should expect their judges to be impartial in performing their official duties.

This week, however, the North Carolina Senate chose to revert to partisan judicial elections.  The state House of Representatives passed a similar (but not identical) bill earlier in the session.  There is speculation that the Governor may veto the bill.  Stay tuned.

 

Could the Ninth Circuit rule on its own split?

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has introduced a bill (one of four currently in Congress) to split the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals into two circuit courts.  Apparently in response to reports that Ninth Circuit judges opposed the bill, Senator Flake asked the Ninth Circuit Executive for clarification on the court’s ability to rule fairly if the legislation were adopted and subsequently challenged. This week,  Cathy Catterson, the Circuit Executive of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, responded with an unqualified yes.

Given that bills to split the Ninth Circuit have been introduced many times since 1941, and have never gained serious traction, it is hard to see this as anything more than political posturing.  But the regular recurrence of the proposal again illustrates the deep interdependence of the federal courts.  Indeed, circuit reorganization is literally an existential issue, affecting active judgeships, resources, case assignments, precedent, and internal court dynamics.  The judges naturally have an interest in the outcome, but they lack any direct say in it.

So let’s play out the hypothetical.  Could the Ninth Circuit judges rule on the reorganization of their own court?  And what would that look like? Continue reading “Could the Ninth Circuit rule on its own split?”

Kentucky Senate passes bill to reallocate judgeships

The Kentucky Senate has passed a bill that would remove some general trial court judges from existing judicial districts and circuits, and add a roughly equal number of family court judges across the state.  The proposed reallocation of judicial resources would be the first in 124 years.  If the bill becomes law, it would go into effect in 2020.

The proposed reallocation is based on a weighted caseload study, a tool used by the federal courts (among others) for more than a decade to account for the complexity and expected resource consumption of particular case types.  Murder cases and complex commercial disputes tend to consumer more judicial resources than, for example, misdeameanors or garden-variety contract disputes.  Weighted caseloads try to account for these differences, and seek to allocate judges in a way that balances out the court system’s overall resources.  The National Center for State Courts assisted with the study.