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.
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.
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?
Continue reading “On paying disgraced judges”
Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, who rose to fame in social media circles for his active and vibrant use of Twitter, was deemed “well-qualified” for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by the American Bar Association earlier this week. Perhaps appropriately, the decision was tweeted out by another prominent member of the state court Twitterati, Georgia Court of Appeals Chief Judge Stephen Dillard.
Justice Willett has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and was a very active tweeter before his federal judicial nomination drove him to stay off the platform, at least temporarily. But he is no longer a rare exception to the rule that active judges stay off of social media. Chief Judge Dillard has more than 11,000 followers, and tweets several times a day, mostly on general legal issues. He is joined by many other judges around the country with active Twitter accounts.
The legal profession has always been uneasy with judges engaging social media. David Lat took a look at this in 2014, concluding that the judicial use of Twitter to educate the public about the work of the courts was entirely appropriate, and that “judges just need to exercise sound judgment.”
The social media landscape has only grown in the ensuing three years, and the question is worth another look. Is the judicial use of Twitter humanizing or harmful?
Continue reading “Tweeting Judges, Revisited”
Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O’Neill, who last week publicly announced his intent to run for governor, has now announced that he will recuse himself from all new cases coming before the Court. O’Neill previously indicated that he would continue to hear new cases, a position which drew considerable criticism from the state auditor.
O’Neill is currently the sole Democrat holding statewide office in Ohio. He has said that he will remain on the Court until he formally enters the race in February. In the meantime, he will campaign and raise money for his gubernatorial run.
Justice O’Neill may be legally permitted to campaign for governor while still on the bench. In a series of cases over the past decade, the Supreme Court has affirmed the First Amendment rights of judges to solicit campaign funds and publicly state their general positions on policy issues. But First Amendment rights do not parallel professional responsibilities, and running a political campaign from the bench can do untold damage to the judiciary’s legitimacy. Justice O’Neill is free to seek another elected job, but he should resign from his current one first.
A Louisiana state judge has publicly stated that she and her colleagues “do not feel secure” in the New Orleans criminal courthouse, citing a dwindling police presence and lax security measures at courthouse entrances.
Previously, at least three unarmed deputies usually were in place to supervise significant numbers of inmates, keep order over audiences and issue subpoenas upon judges’ orders. Recently there have been only two per courtroom, or on rare occasions one.
Officers of the court — such as attorneys and clerk staff — also generally are waved through metal detectors at the court’s two public entrances without being subjected to a search of their person or belongings. [Judge] Flemings-Davillier said that, too, needs to change.
“We are asking the sheriff’s office to reinforce the rules that we already have,” she said, “because they have been lax and we have had some security issues.”
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office has stated that it is unaware of any specific threats or incidents that should make courthouse personnel uneasy.
On the heels of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s first live broadcast of an oral argument last week, the Minnesota Supreme Court has announced that it will begin live streaming its own oral arguments next week. The first live streamed case will involve a dispute between Governor Mark Dayton and the state legislature.
In a statement, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea said the court is “committed to maintaining the public’s trust in our Court, and ensuring the openness and accessibility of our public proceedings.”
“By livestreaming our oral arguments, we hope to give more Minnesotans the opportunity to see their highest Court in action, and to learn more about how our Court considers and decides the important legal matters that come before us,” she said.