Iowa’s juvenile and district courts will not schedule any appearances this coming Friday, and all clerk of court and administrative offices will be closed. Court staff will instead take a mandatory, unpaid furlough day. The move stemmed from budget cuts by the state legislature.
The Oregonian has an interesting article on the efforts of state and federal courts to crack down on citizens not appearing for jury duty. The story nicely describes the range of tactics in play, from jury coordinators and James Taylor concert videos to being individually summoned and grilled by an irritated judge.
Jury trials are central to the American justice system, and citizens who serve on a jury almost always walk away with a better appreciation for the court system and their own civic responsibilities.
The Chief Justices of six states — Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee — recently signed a charter to support a Regional Opioid Initiative already in place in those states. The courts’ commitment to the initiative recognizes that the epidemic crosses state borders and is most usefully addressed with a high level of cross-state cooperation. It also recognizes the key role of state judiciaries in combatting the epidemic.
On Monday, the President nominated ten individuals for federal judgeships — five on the circuit courts of appeal, four on the district courts, and one on the U.S. Court of Claims. Three of the ten (Joan Larsen of Michigan, David Stras of Minnesota, and David Nye of Idaho) currently sit on state courts — Larsen and Stras on their state supreme courts, and Nye on his state’s trial bench.
The value of state court experience for federal judges has not been discussed much, but it should be. An intimate knowledge of state law and state court operations is surprisingly useful for the federal bench. And appointing federal judges from the state courts has valuable ripple effects for the states as well. More after the jump.
According to this story, a special counsel for Mayor Bill de Blasio has noted the difficulty of finding qualified applicants to fill interim posts on the New York City Civil Court. It’s not hard to see why. Candidates are guaranteed only one year on the bench, after which they must stand for election to keep their positions. But in New York’s byzantine judicial election system, which is largely run by party bosses and was once flatly characterized by Justice Stevens as “stupid,” excellent service on the bench for a year is no guarantee of future employment.
Consider the problem from the perspective of potential applicants. To move to the bench, those in private practice would have to give up their clients, essentially depleting years or decades of work in developing a book of business. It would be professionally negligent, if not career suicide, to allow all your clients to move on in return for a one-year gig on the bench. Potential applicants in the District Attorney’s office or Public Defender’s office might be able to extract themselves a bit more easily, but face similar risks in moving themselves back and forth from the bench. As a result, the pool of potential applicants is likely to contain near-retirees or lawyers without much business than it is high-quality attorneys in their prime.
New York, like other states, could resolve the problem by moving away from judicial elections altogether. Appointed judges would have more confidence in their ability to stay on the bench for a while, given good behavior.
State legislatures continue to propose and advance bills that will impact their respective court systems. Here are some of the latest developments:
- Indiana’s proposal to convert Marion County (Indianapolis) to a merit selection system is heading to conference committee. The latest version of the bill calls for a 14-member nominating committee to choose three final candidates for the governor’s selection; four of the committee members would be chosen from voters. Previous coverage of the Indiana bill and its history is here.
- In Arkansas, a new bill would change the way state judges are elected in Cumberland County Superior Court. The current election system grants seats on the bench to the top two vote-getters among all candidates. The bill would require candidates to declare which of the two judicial seats they are seeking.
- The Florida House of Representatives has passed an amendment to the state constitution that would impose term limits on state appellate judges, including supreme court justices. This is a terrible idea, but happily it is still in its infancy. The state senate would also have to approve the move, and then voters would have to approve it in 2018. Similar efforts in others states have been defeated in recent years after they were exposed for the transparent political proposals that they were.
- Nebraska’s unicameral legislature has advanced a bill to raise judicial pay in the state.
State courts have increasingly tried to keep up with the growth of self-represented litigants. Concrete numbers are elusive, in part due to varying definitions of “self-represented.”* But studies undertaken by individual states clearly demonstrate the burgeoning self-represented population in probate, domestic violence, family law, and even run-of-the-mill civil cases. Federal courts, too, report that almost 86,000 civil cases were filed by a self-represented plaintiff in Fiscal Year 2016 (most of them prisoner petitions).
This interesting article discusses the efforts of the Minnesota state courts to address the growing numbers of self-represented parties:
It’s not uncommon for pro se litigants to arrive at court with paperwork that’s either the wrong form or filled out incorrectly. These kinds of mistakes can gum up the system, court officials say. Now judges can sometimes send people straight from the courtroom to a self-help center.
“It helps people feel like they’ve been heard,” District Judge Bethany Fountain Lindberg said. “It also eliminates unnecessary hearings.”
While the number of court cases overall in Minnesota has decreased since 2010, the percentage of litigants proceeding without a lawyer remains high. Excluding traffic and parking cases, nearly 80 percent of cases heard in Minnesota district courts last year involved a pro se litigant at some point, state data show.
The reason is often financial, court officials say. The rise of the do-it-yourself web culture may also be behind the trend.
“It used to be that everyone had attorneys,” said Mike Moriarity, 10th Judicial District administrator. “Now there’s a spirit that people want to try doing it themselves.
* The Court Statistics Project, maintained by the National Center for State Courts, tracks self-represented litigation through a common definition, but the numbers are not available for all states.