Texas courts face shortage of stenographers

The Texas state courts face delayed hearings and trials resulting from a dwindling supply of court reporters.  The Texas Office of Court Administration reports a decline of 20 percent in the number of available stenographers since 2005.

While some courts across the country have moved to audiotape as a less expensive option, live court reporters typically produce transcripts that are far more accurate. The story quotes stenographer Chavela Crain, who noted

“We deal with dialects, accents, coughing, sneezing, sirens going by, somebody says they were offered 15,000 for something, and I can say ‘Wait, was that 15,000 or 50,000?'” Crain explained. “On an audio (recording) you’re not going to be able to tell that, and if somebody’s not in the room there is nobody to clarify that.”

Counting on the Low-Information Voter

The LSE Blog features some interesting new research by University of Texas Professor Brent Boyea on the intersection of partisan elections, campaign contributions, and professionalized courts. Looking at 12 years’ worth of data from state high court elections, Boyea found that campaign contributors are nearly twice as generous, on average, in states with partisan judicial elections than they are in states with nonpartisan judicial elections. He also found that “contributors support candidates more actively in states with professionalized courts where judges have higher salaries, advanced resources, and courts have freedom to decide their agenda.” And contributors are most generous when elections are partisan and courts are professionalized. This suggests, to me at least, that campaign contributors expect to get the most “bang for the buck” in states where a candidate’s election is all but assured on partisan grounds, and the elected judge will later have some freedom to act in a manner consistent with the contributor’s own agenda.

Somewhat related is this story out of Illinois, discussing how attorney Phillip Spiwack legally changed his name to Shannon O’Malley in advance of his campaign for a Cook County judgeship. Spiwack/O’Malley appears to be conceding to a stubborn reality of Chicago judicial elections: having an Irish woman’s name is an extraordinarily valuable commodity at the polls—more valuable, it seems, than professional experience, skill, or judicial temperament.

These items add to a growing body of evidence that in judicial election states, citizens are virtually expected to come to the polls armed with no more information than a candidate’s party affiliation or surname. How this advances the integrity, efficiency, or legitimacy of the judicial system is beyond me.

(Cross-posted at Prawfsblawg.)

Houston Chronicle profiles Judge Lee Rosenthal

The Houston Chronicle has a very good profile of Lee Rosenthal, a highly respected federal district judge in the Southern District of Texas. Judge Rosenthal is well-known not only as an excellent jurist, but as a thoughtful and tireless worker on issues of court administration. I will add that she is a warm, gracious, and lovely person as well. A good read for anyone interested in the backgrounds of judges and (to some degree) the inner workings of the federal court system.

The local impact of judicial selection wars

The Dallas Morning News has a good story about the impact of longstanding federal judicial vacancies in Texas. For all the attention that President Trump has received regarding his judicial nominees, relatively few have been confirmed at the district court level. The article gives us a good look into districts where judicial emergencies stemming from longstanding vacancies are, unfortunately, a way of life.

White House withdraws two federal district court nominees

Two of President Trump’s nominees for federal district judgeships have been withdrawn.  Brett Talley, a nominee for the bench in Alabama, and Jeff Mateer, nominated for the bench in Texas, will not advance.

Talley drew particular criticism over the last several months for his personal conflicts and clear lack of qualifications. The 36-year-old Justice Department attorney has only practiced law for three years and has never tried a case — a monumental shortcoming for a trial court nominee. Talley also failed to disclose that he was married to a White House lawyer, or that he had previously made controversial statements about death row inmates. (Of less direct importance, but no less head-scratching, was the additional revelation that Talley is a “ghost hunter.”) The ABA rated him “unqualified.”

Separately, Mateer came under fire for his statements on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgender children.

The withdrawals come on the heels of Senator Chuck Grassley’s recommendation that the White House “reconsider” both nominations.

Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the courts

The devastation in the Houston area from Hurricane Harvey has extended to the state and local court systems, which have effectively been shut down.  State courthouses in Harris County, Texas are closed all week, and several other counties are scrambling to shift proceedings to available venues.  The federal courts in the Southern District of Texas also suspended operations for several days, a major development given that the district receives more than 14,000 filings a year.  The Eastern District of Texas and Western District of Louisiana also closed courthouses in light of the hurricane.

In the wake of real tragedy along Harvey’s path, the inconvenience of a closed courthouse is admittedly relatively minor.  But as those in the Gulf Coast begin the long process of reconstructing their communities, an operational and fully functioning court system will be a welcome development.

 

Two extremes along the spectrum of judicial professionalism

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown was recognized with the 2017 American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the Ninth Circuit.  Judge Brown has served on the bench for the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon since 1999.  Cribbing from the press release:

Brown is president of the 9th Circuit District Judges Association, speaks frequently on programs for new trial judges, and currently serves on the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference. She is a past member and officer of the Gus. J. Solomon American Inn of Court, has served as chair of the Oregon State Bar Uniform Civil and Criminal Jury Instructions Committees and the 9th Circuit Jury Instructions and Jury Trial Improvement Committees, and is a founding member of Oregon Women Judges in conjunction with Oregon Women Lawyers and the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society.

While working full-time as a 911 operator, Brown earned her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. Attending law school at night, she earned a J.D. from Northwestern School of Law (now Lewis & Clark Law School). She served as law clerk to Multnomah County Circuit Judge John C. Beatty, Jr.

Congratulations to Judge Brown on a well-deserved honor.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, something far less than honor was falling on Houston Justice of the Peace Hilary Green, who was suspended by the Texas Supreme Court amid allegations that she engaged in sexting in the courtroom, hired prostitutes, used her bailiff to buy drugs, and brought home marijuana seized from a defendant.

Green’s lawyer, Chip Babcock, responded to the suspension by noting that Green had been reelected many times by the voters.  “She’s very popular in the precinct,” he said.

Sigh.