Admin note: Blog redesign & update, plus 10 weeks of Election 2014 coverage starts next Monday

Readers may notice some changes to the blog. Based on the feedback from last May’s reader survey as well as comments emailed to me recently I’ve decided to update and revamp the blog. The redesign should help people in finding information and navigating the blog. If you have questions of comments, feel free to email me wraftery@ncsc.org.

In addition I wanted to also note that starting next Monday (August 25) and for the next 10 weeks the blog will be dedicated to looking at the ballot items on for this November affecting the courts. Stay tuned.

Non-state week 2014: U.S. Virgin Islands – Granting Chief Justice more administrative control over Superior Court

Among the topics related to the U.S. Virgin Island’s judiciary in the last year has been a proposal to consolidate and unify the administrative authority for all Superior Courts in the Chief Justice, based in part on a recommendation from a study conducted by the National Center for State Courts (full disclosure: Gavel to Gavel is an NCSC publication). Prior to a set of 2007 laws (Act 6965 and Act 6985) the Supreme Court had authority over the Superior Court, but the legislature removed that power.

30-278 would have repealed the 2007 Acts and unified administration of the judiciary under the Chief Justice. Hearings on the subject in February and this summer included proponents arguing that such a consolidation would be more efficient than having two administrative systems. Opponents voiced concern over putting so much authority in the hands of one person (the chief justice). Media coverage of can be found here (July 2013), here (September 2013), here (February 2014), and here (July 2014).

Other bills of note included:

30-155: Increases small claims jurisdiction from $10,000 to $25,000.

30-254: Establishes electronic citations and creates Superior Court Clerk Electronic Citation Fund. Provides $5 to be added to all convictions with $3 to be sent to clerk to pay for technology to allow for e-citations to be received by courts.

Non-state week: Puerto Rico – Legislature mandates e-filing and technology changes, creates new judicial retirement plan. Should retired judges be allowed to practice law? Should bar be involved in judicial evaluation?

In the last two years Puerto Rico’s legislature has been active with respect to the commonwealth’s judiciary. Of particular note are two Senate bills (PS 801  and PS 802) enacted in December 2013 that mandate e-filing in civil and criminal cases, respectively, as soon as possible. Also related to court technolgy is House bill PC 1860 currently on the governor’s desk, that directs the judiciary, police, and several executive branch departments and agencies to establish a uniform technological system that allows effective sharing of information between agencies so that the best performance is achieved via the Criminal Justice Information System (Sistema de Información de Justicia Criminal (SIJC)).

Also making its way into law is a new judicial retirement system. PC 1595 establishes a defined contribution and defined benefit hybrid program for future judges of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. That bill was signed into law 12/24/13.

Also active were two bills contending with the issue of retired judges that would effectively ban the former jurists from practicing law. PC 1270 as introduced would have prohibited a retired Chief Justice or President Judge of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico from representing any person before a court, administrative or quasi-judicial agency. It also prohibits such a person from providing courts/agencies legal services. As amended the bill would have allowed a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico to restart their law practice, but prohibited them from appearing in court, administrative proceedings, alternative dispute forums, or generally representing people or corporations in any proceeding. Further, the amended bill provided that the person’s judicial pension is forfeited where such representations take place. It was approved by the full House 10/10/13 and is pending in the Senate Judicial, Security, and Veterans Committee. A similar bill (PC 1311) identical to the original PC 1270 remains in the House Labor and Public Service Retirement Systems Committee.

Finally, the House approved a plan to restore the Bar Association of Puerto Rico’s power to evaluate nominations of judges to fill seats on courts and to re-evaluate those seeking reappointment or promotion to a higher court. PC 1356  was approved by the full House 10/21/13 and remains pending in the Judiciary, Security, and Veterans Committee.

Additional bills currently pending below the fold.

Continue reading

Non-state week: Northern Mariana Islands – Drug testing for judges vetoed; courts may use abandoned funds for indigent defense

I mentioned back in the spring of 2014 here, here, and here the rash of efforts to drug test judges and other elected officials introduced in several states. At the same time, a similar bill was working its way through the Northern Mariana Islands Commonwealth Legislature. HB 18-152 would have required all “elected officials” to be randomly drug tested and the results made public; Northern Mariana Islands judges are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate, but must stand for retention elections every 6 or 8 years. The bill was vetoed in April 2014 over concerns regarding its constitutionality. The House subsequently overrode the veto but it does not appear the Senate did so.

Other pieces of legislation affecting the courts debated in the Northern Mariana Islands Commonwealth Legislature included:

HB 18-142 Provides where the Commonwealth Judiciary is holding third party funds for longer than one year (“abandoned funds”), the Judiciary may transfer funds to special account for use by the judiciary to pay for indigent defense and pro se legal services. Signed into law 2/14/14.

HB 18-123 ORIGINAL: Grants Chief Justice power to “reprogram” (reallocate) 100% of all funds appropriated by legislature to judiciary. AMENDED:  Grants Chief Justice power to “reprogram” (reallocate) 50% of all funds appropriated by legislature to judiciary. Approved by full House 2/11/14. In Senate (no committee).

Could Arkansas get merit selection for its appellate courts? State constitution has an opt-in provision in place.

The last several weeks have seen an increased interest in merit selection for Arkansas’ judges, with the state’s Attorney General backing merit selection for at the very least the state’s supreme court (h/t Gavel Grab). Interestingly, Arkansas’ constitution has a provision contemplating such a move already in place.

Prior to 2000, virtually all Arkansas judges were elected on partisan ballots (some City Court and Police Court judgeships were either nonpartisan or by appointment of the local municipal governing body). However all that changed with the adoption of Amendment 80 which effectively rewrote the state constitution’s judiciary article in its entirety and required nonpartisan elections for the Circuit and District Courts (Amend. 80, Sec. 17) and the appellate courts (Sec. 18); City Courts weren’t discussed.

Section 18 of Amendment 80, however, included a proviso that would allow for the shift for appellate court races to a merit selection system without the need for another constitutional amendment. Instead under Section 18

[T]he General Assembly may refer the issue of merit selection of members of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals to a vote of the people at any general election. If the voters approve a merit selection system, the General Assembly shall enact laws to create a judicial nominating commission for the purpose of nominating candidates for merit selection to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals

One such effort was launched in 2011 as SB 744 (prior coverage here). That bill would have put the question of merit selection for the Court of Appeals only at the next general election. It was never heard in committee.

The prospect of merit selection also came up in 2013 when members of the legislature attempted to curtail or repeal the Supreme Court’s rule making power after that court struck down a tort reform law as infringing on the rule making power of the court (prior coverage here). HJR 1005 would have been a constitutional amendment that covered the Supreme Court only and explicitly prohibited the justices of that court from engaging in partisan/party activity. That plan went nowhere.

Non-state week 2014: Guam – delinking judicial salaries from legislative ones; changing Chief Justices terms

Among the bills being considered by the 32nd Guam Legislature (Liheslaturan Guåhan) affecting the courts are:

Bill 307-32 Authorizes Judicial Council to adopt pay schedules and plans for salary and benefit increases for non-law enforcement employees of the judiciary. Appropriates $510,000 for same. Passed Liheslaturan Guåhan 6/16/14. Signed into law 6/24/14.

Bill 276-32 Eliminates practice where salary of Guam Senators is automatically set as 50% of Superior Court of Guam Judge’s salary. In Rules Committee.

HB 243 – 32 Implements law enforcement pay adjustments for law enforcement within Unified Judiciary of Guam. In Appropriations Committee.

HB 161 – 32 Creates veterans courts within the Judiciary of Guam. Passed Liheslaturan Guåhan 11/12/13. Signed into law 11/27/13.

HB 144 – 32 Requires Department of Administration identify funds necessary to address merit bonus compensation for Judiciary of Guam employees. In Appropriations Committee.

HB 39 -32 Repeals existing law that no Chief Justice may succeed himself or herself in office. Allows Chief Justice to serve two successive terms and allows Chief Justice to serve again after at least one full term has intervened. In Judiciary Committee.

Non-state week 2014: A look at legislation affecting the non-state courts of the United States

Since its establishment in 2006 as a set of spreadsheets, Gavel to Gavel maintained itself as “A review of state legislation affecting the courts.” However, this has admitted and regrettably given short shrift to the other parts of the United States that are not states:

  1. Territory of American Samoa
  2. Territory of Guam
  3. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands
  4. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
  5. United States Virgin Islands
  6. District of Columbia

In 2011 Gavel to Gavel began a semi-regular practice of focusing a week on these specific non-states and that practice continues for a week starting today.