Illinois Supreme Court orders trial judge to stop sealing all filings in high-profile murder case

Judge Vincent Gaughan, who is presiding over a high-profile case involving the police shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald, ordered that the attorneys for both sides file all motions and briefs directly with him. Late last week, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed with Gaughan’s policy, ordering the judge to stop requiring the sealing of all documents.

The media covering the case is understandably pleased with the ruling.

Iowa judge allowed attorneys to ghost write “a couple hundred” orders and opinions

A recently retired Iowa trial judge has admitted that “a couple hundred” of his orders and opinions were ghost-written by the prevailing attorneys. Many of Judge Edward Jacobson’s requests for draft rulings were privately communicated by email.

Trial judges at all levels frequently deal with workload crunch by asking both parties to draft proposed findings and fact and conclusions of law. This is a sensible allocation of labor, since the parties and their attorneys are the most familiar with the underlying facts, and drafting orders is time-intensive. It is commonly understood among litigators that a well-drafted set of proposed findings can provide the bulk of a court’s subsequent order.

But judicial requests for proposed findings should be made on the record, in open court. Ex parte communications of the kind Judge Jacobson apparently engaged in suggest a breach of judicial ethics, or at minimum remarkable irresponsibility.

The state court administrator is investigating the matter, and has ordered that the judge’s emails be preserved for at least seven months.

Judge denies stay of injunction in Cook County records case; defendants appeal to the Seventh Circuit

This blog has been following a First Amendment challenge to the filing practices in the Cook County (Illinois) courts. In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Cook County was violating the First Amendment by denying the press and the public immediate access to electronically filed civil cases. In January, the federal district court agreed, and issued an injunction giving the Cook County Clerk’s Office 30 days to implement a new procedure.

That procedure has yet to be implemented, and the federal district court has twice rejected motions to stay the injunction. Now the clerk’s office has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the federal courts never should have heard the case under the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris. No word yet from the Seventh Circuit.

I have more extensive thoughts on this entire lawsuit here.

Pennsylvania court will have to operate with only two full-time judges

Effective Monday, the Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County, Pennsylvania will be down to two full-time judges.  One of those judges, Robert G. Yeatts, recently assured the public that courts will stay open for business, using retired judges to “run the courts as much as possible.”

Fortunately, the state politicians responsible for filling the seats seem aware of the problem and plan to add new judges as soon as possible.  But this story beings into sharp relief the courts’ dependence on others for their most basic resources.

 

More learning curves with state court e-filing

Luzerne County, Pennsylvania is the latest court to transition to electronic filing, and it is finding the same immediate advantages, and the same growing pains, as other state courts around the country. On the plus side, e-filing is easier for attorneys who will no longer have to trek to the courthouse to file or review documents. It will also be easier (and cheaper) for the court system, which will move to a state-run electronic records management system. But the transition may make it harder for media to access information on recent filings. A similar problem led one media outlet to file a lawsuit against the Cook County (Illinois) courts earlier this year, citing First Amendment and transparency concerns.

 

 

On paying disgraced judges

Roy Moore, the disgraced judge turned disgraceful Senate candidate, received good news recently when the Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) Board approved his $135,000 annual pension, representing 75% of his annual salary before he was suspended from his duties as Alabama Chief Justice in September 2016.  The RSA Board indicated that it has no legal authority to reject or change a judge’s pension.  Moore qualified for the pension under state law due to his previous years of service and age at the time he was suspended.

Meanwhile in Washington, Senator Charles Grassley recalled ex-judge Thomas Porteous’s efforts to fleece taxpayers with his own retirement pension. Porteous was impeached and removed from office in 2010 for taking bribes and engaging in a variety of corrupt acts. Shortly before he was impeached, Porteous tried to claim disability retirement in order to secure a lifetime annual salary of nearly $175,000.

No one could be blamed for wanting to deny retirement payments to judges whose conduct in office was reprehensible, as was the case (in different ways) for Moore and Porteous. The counterargument is that reprehensible conduct cannot be clearly defined, and the ability to remove benefits will become a weapon against judicial independence. Where and how should we draw the line?

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