An update on Florida’s judicial vacancy lawsuit

Last week I noted the lawsuit filed against Florida Governor Rick Scott by Jacksonville attorney David Trotti. Scott has moved to fill several seats on the state bench, which opened due to curiously timed judicial retirements. Trotti alleges that the retirements create a vacancy for such a short period that the seats should be filled by popular election.

The trial court ruled in favor of Trotti, which would have prevented the Governor from filling the seat. But the Scott Administration appealed, which automatically stayed the decision and once again enabled the Governor to appoint a new judge. Trotti convinced the trial court to vacate the stay, but Scott then convinced the appellate court to reinstate the stay.

Trotti has now appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the stay (and a Scott appointment) will eliminate the rights of citizens to vote for the judicial candidate of their choice. In his petition, he noted that several judges have times their retirements to create just enough of vacancy to permit the Governor to claim the right to fill the seat through appointment. As I noted in my earlier post, I am no fan of judicial elections, but this certainly smells like people are gaming the system.

When elected judges rule on judicial elections

On Monday, Arkansas state trial judge Doug Martin issued a temporary restraining order preventing the conservative Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) from airing television ads critical of Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Courtney Goodson. The ads alleged, among other things, that Justice Goodson accepted monetary gifts from lawyers. Justice Goodson sued JCN, alleging that the ads were false and defamatory. The election is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 22; early voting has already commenced.

The TRO raises a number of evergreen issues in judicial elections, including the degree to which it constitutes an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech, and whether the harm done to the judicial system by attack ads outweighs any benefits from selecting judges by the ballot. The additional twist here is that the propriety of conduct during judicial elections was itself determined by an elected judge — that is, someone who has a clear stake in the judicial selection process. Indeed, Judge Martin is no stranger to election controversies, having been censured for statements made about his opponent in the 2014 campaign. Of course, any Arkansas state judge would have some professional interest in the outcome of the case (since all face election), and I am not aware of any aspect of Justice Goodson’s complaint that would have made the case fit to be heard by a federal judge with a lifetime appointment.

As the name implies, a TRO is used to stop offending activity for only a short period, and typically expires within a few days. This TRO is no exception; the parties will return to court tomorrow for further hearings on whether to issue a preliminary injunction. Given the high profile of the case and the stakes for Judge Martin’s reputation, I expect that he will carefully and extensively probe the First Amendment issues with the parties before issuing another order.

 

Cook County courts ordered to make e-filings immediately available to public

In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts, alleging that the county was posting electronically filed complaints days after receiving them, even though the complaints should have been immediately available to the press as public records.

On Monday, the federal court agreed, issuing a preliminary injunction which gives Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown thirty days to develop a system under which the press can gain immediate access to newly filed cases.

I do not envy Dorothy Brown. Late last month, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected her request for a one-year extension of the deadline to align Cook County’s e-filing system with that of the rest of the state. This new decision only turns up the heat on Cook County to develop a functional e-filing system in very short order.

In new lawsuit, court journalists allege that electronic case filing undermines transparency

The Courthouse News Service, a specialty news service focusing on civil cases across the United States, has sued the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Clerk’s Office. The lawsuit alleges that the Clerk’s office is withholding information on new case filings from the public for days after the cases are filed. In particular, the suit claims that the Clerk’s office is not immediately disclosing some electronically filed complaints, even though those complaints should be public record as soon as they are filed.

The Cook County Record reports:

Under the old method, the lawsuit said, journalists working in the courthouse were able to freely access paper lawsuits as they were filed with the circuit clerk’s office, even before they entered the official intake process, as the courts considered such lawsuits public information from the moment they were dropped off at the clerk’s office, essentially making private disputes the public’s business.

However, as more and more lawsuits have been e-filed, CNS said the clerk’s office has withheld more and more of them, for days or weeks at a time, as they are administratively processed.

“These delays in access … is (sic) the result of the Clerk’s policy and practice of withholding new e-filed complaints from press review until after the performance of administrative processing, including post-filing ‘acceptance’ of the complaint, at which time the Clerk deems the complaint ‘officially filed,’” CNS wrote in its lawsuit. “The Clerk takes this position even though the applicable rules and orders provide that e-filed complaints received before midnight on a court day are ‘deemed filed’ on the date of receipt, even if they are not ‘officially’ accepted as filed until a later date…”

CNS noted this particularly allows plaintiffs’ lawyers to control the initial flow of information about their lawsuits, as they can spoon feed the complaints to news outlets they may consider more friendly or sympathetic, while other competing outlets wait days or weeks for access to the vital public documents associated with the case.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and names Cook County court clerk Dorothy Brown as a defendant. The case number is 1:17-cv-07933. Ironically, the Courthouse News Service does not seem to have uploaded the complaint to its own news website.

Attorneys file federal class action lawsuit over PACER fees

In April, attorneys for several watchdog groups filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the court’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system overcharged the public for access to court records starting in April 2010.

The lawsuit seeks “an unspecified amount of damages that ‘are found to exceed the amount authorized by law,’ as well as attorney fees.” Court documents and further details on the suit from the class action attorneys can be found here.

I was notified by email that I am a member of the plaintiff class, based on periodic PACER research I have conducted since 2010. And I have been critical of high PACER fees in the past, especially when PACER is used purely for academic research.  But this is a pretty silly lawsuit.  The class action attorneys will make a tidy sum from any settlement, and the actual affected members will likely get nothing of consequence.  I would much prefer to see the courts offer PACER as a free research service, or otherwise develop a sensible, tiered payment system.

 

 

Trial ends in civil rights case challenging Louisiana’s judicial election districts

We previously reported on a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by a local chapter of the NAACP, alleging that the state’s current at-large voting system for state judges disadvantages minority groups.  The plaintiffs are seeking to replace the current system with a system of five single-member districts, one of which would be drawn to include a majority of African-American and other minority groups among its residents.

A bench trial began in mid-March, and both parties rested their cases on Friday.  The Daily Comet, a local Louisiana newspaper, has a good wrap-up of the dramatic testimony on the final day.  The decision now rests with U.S. District Judge James Brady, who has instructed both sides to file post-trial briefs by June 8.  A decision is expected by August.

Minnesota judge loses constitutional challenge to state’s mandatory retirement age

Last summer, Minnesota District Judge Galen Vaa filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that its mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 was unconstitutional.  (Vaa is currently 69 and wants to keep working past next year.)  This week, another district judge in the state ruled against his claim, concluding that the state constitution authorized the legislature to set a mandatory retirement age.

Most states impose mandatory retirement ages between 70 and 75.  Judge Vaa plans to appeal the ruling.

UPDATE: Michigan lawmakers are considering eliminating that state’s mandatory retirement age for judges.  We’ll follow this development as well.