Pennsylvania: After U.S. Supreme Court declines to overturn PA Supreme Court’s redistricting decisions, 12 PA House members move forward with impeachment of PA Supreme Court justices

A plan to impeach members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for their decision in a gerrymandering case discussed here has now become official.

Justices David N. Wecht, Debra McCloskey Todd, Christine Donohue, and Kevin M. Dougherty are all officially charged with misbehavior in office for their opinion in League of Women Voters of PA, et. al. v. The Commonwealth of PA, et. al., No. 159 MM 2017. The U.S. Supreme yesterday declined to take up a challenge in the case.

Resolutions below

HR 766 (David N. Wecht)

HR 767 (Debra McCloskey Todd)

HR 768 (Christine Donohue)

HR 769 (Kevin M. Dougherty)

UPDATE: The main author of the resolutions was quoted by The Hill as saying

“This is basically 7th grade civics class all over again, the separation of powers and the authority of the legislature,” Dush told The Hill. “The courts basically are there to interpret when there’s conflict in the law, and they don’t have any sovereignty.”

 

Mississippi: Legislature sends to Governor plan to expand Chief Justice’s power to appoint temporary judges to courts; CJ could assign temp judges to particular cases or case types/dockets

The Mississippi Legislature has unanimously advanced to the governor a bill to expand the power of the state’s Chief Justice to appoint “special judges” to help clear up case backlogs.

State law already allows the Chief Justice, with the consent of a majority of the Supreme Court, to make such appointments for the Court of Appeals, Chancery Court, or Circuit Court. Now the Chief Justice could name such temporary special judges to County Courts.

Additionally, rather than simply appointing the temporary judge to a court, the Chief Justice could give the temporary judge particular assignments (“The Chief Justice, in his discretion, may appoint the special judge to hear particular cases, a particular type of case, or a particular portion of the court’s docket.”)

 

Virginia: plan for online criminal case info system enacted; civil online info system held over for next session; overall case information must be made available, but clerks can charge fee

A plan to put all nonconfidential criminal case information in Virginia online by July 1, 2019 has been signed in law. Among other things HB 780 / SB 564

  1. Defines “confidential court records,” “court records,” and “nonconfidential court records”
  2. Requires the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court to make available to the public an online case information system of nonconfidential information for criminal cases by July 1, 2019. This information will cover circuit courts participating in the Executive Secretary’s case management system and all general district courts.
  3. Provides that requests for reports of aggregated, nonconfidential case data fields that are viewable through the online case information systems maintained by the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court shall be made to the Office of the Executive Secretary. Such reports of aggregated case data shall not include the name, date of birth, or social security number of any party and shall not include images of the individual records in the respective case files. However, nothing in this section shall be construed to permit any reports or aggregated case data to be sold or posted on any other website or in any way redistributed to any third party. The Executive Secretary, in his discretion, may deny such request to ensure compliance with these provisions. However, such data may be included in products or services provided to a third party, provided that such data is not made available to the general public.
  4. Provides a clerk of court or the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court shall make nonconfidential court records or reports of aggregated, nonconfidential case data available to the public upon request.
  5. Specifies that such records or reports shall be provided no later than 30 days after the request.
  6. Provides that the clerk may charge a fee for responding to such request that shall not exceed the actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, reviewing, supplying, or searching for the requested records.

A set of bill to put civil case information online in similar fashion (SB 980) cleared the Senate but was held in the House Courts of Justice Committee until the 2019 session.

Florida: Senate bill would make several changes to judiciary; court security, civil jurisdiction limits, Supreme Court justice remote chambers; bill may require 2/3rds majority

A bill approved last week by the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee and set for a full Senate vote soon effectively merges several bills into one with potential major ramifications for the courts.

SB 1396 as it presently reads includes

  • A new section of law regarding the role and responsibility of sheriffs to provide court security and the authority of chief judges in this area. The language appears to be similar if not identical to portions of HB 7089 discussed here.
  • Increases the civil jurisdiction for the state’s County Courts from $15,000 to $50,000 effective 2020.
  • Authorizes a Supreme Court justice who resides outside of Tallahassee to maintain his or her headquarters in a district court of appeal courthouse, a county courthouse, or other appropriate facility in the justice’s district and be reimbursed for travel and subsistence while in Tallahassee.
  • The addition of judges to certain Circuits

This last item may prove a sticking point. Under the state’s constitution the supreme court “certifies” the number of judges needed in each Circuit Court or County Court. If the legislature wants to alter the supreme court’s numbers up or down, it must have “a finding of two-thirds of the membership of both houses of the legislature.”

Wyoming: Legislature approves court information technology equipment bill; provides whether judiciary or counties are responsible

Earlier this week the Wyoming legislature approved SF 24, an attempt to specify the responsibilities for court information technology equipment between the state judicial branch and county governments.

Key elements of the bill include:

  1. Defines “Court information technology equipment” (hardware equipment located in state court facilities necessary to meet, but not exceed, court information technology equipment standards adopted by the board of judicial policy and administration)
  2. Defines “State court facility” to include circuit and district courtrooms, circuit and district court jury rooms, circuit and district court judges’ chambers and the offices of circuit court clerks. Wyoming does have municipal courts, but these are not discussed.
  3. Implementation of court information technology equipment that requires alteration of a county building requires consultation with the board of county commissioners or the board’s appointed designee.
  4. The supreme court shall install court information technology equipment in all state court facilities in a phased approach. Upon installation of court information technology equipment in a state court facility, the supreme court shall maintain and support the equipment installed by the supreme court.
  5. Each county shall provide and maintain infrastructure to ensure the proper function of court information technology equipment including, but not limited to, requisite power outlets, network drops, audio and visual drops and associated wiring for connectivity of all endpoints and peripherals associated with court information technology equipment.

SF 24 now goes to the governor.

California and Minnesota bills address issue of court disaster/emergency planning

Two bills filed last week address the need for courts to make plans for disasters and other emergencies.

California SB 1208 as filed amends the state’s existing Judicial Emergency statute (Government Code 68115). Among other things, SB 1208

  1. Expands instances where the Chief Justice, as Chair of Judicial Council, may exercise emergency powers due to disaster/emergency. Currently that power is limited to “war, insurrection, pestilence, or other public calamity” but would be changed to “war, an act of terrorism, public unrest or calamity, epidemic, natural disaster, or other substantial risk to the health and welfare of court personnel or the public.” The Chief Justice could also act where the President or the Governor declared a state of emergency.
  2. Allows civil cases to be move to another county; currently the power is limited to an adjacent county. However, a transfer “shall not be made” (currently “may be made”) except with the consent of all parties to the case or upon a finding by the court that extreme or undue hardship would result unless the case is transferred for trial.
  3. Provides certain civil time limits related to trials are to be extended only to fewest days necessary, however the Chief Justice may make extensions of time on the request of the presiding judge from granting further extensions if circumstances warrant relief.

Minnesota HF 2809 as filed is broader than the California bill and addresses emergency operations and continuity of government for all three branches. As filed, HF 2809 requires the Supreme Court adopt and maintain an emergency operations and continuity of government plan to ensure the secure, continued operation of the judicial branch in the event of a disaster, emergency, or “declared emergency” (defined as “a national security or peacetime emergency declared by the governor under section 12.31.”)

At minimum, the plan must include

  1. identification of at least three suitable locations within the state at which the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and central administrative functions of the judicial branch could operate in the event of a disaster or declared emergency that make its regular location unsafe or inaccessible, with one location designated as a primary alternate location and two designated as backup alternate locations if the primary location is unsafe or inaccessible;
  2. plans to provide timely and secure communications regarding a disaster, emergency, or declared emergency to all affected personnel, including alternate methods of communication if a primary method is unavailable;
  3. plans to securely transport affected justices, judges, designated personnel, and necessary equipment and records to an alternate location and begin judicial operations at that location in a timely manner;
  4. plans to ensure reasonable public notice of the judicial branch’s operations and access to its proceedings and records in-person or by electronic, broadcast, or other means as the rules of the court require and the circumstances of the emergency allow;
  5. plans to ensure the rights and protections guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions to criminal defendants, petitioners, and civil litigants are preserved;
  6. procedures for the orderly return of judicial branch operations to their regular location, as soon as circumstances allow; and
  7. policy decisions that address any other procedures or protocols recommended for inclusion by the state director of emergency management.

Louisiana: bill would require judges to file annual financial statements, mandatory ethics training; separation of powers debate comes back after 2008 agreement

A bill prefiled in the Louisiana House would require elected and appointed judges in the state to follow the same financial disclosure statute as other officials.

SB 44 as filed would require judges file annual financial statements and attend mandatory ethics training.

Some background: the law in question was adopted in 2008. At the time of introduction, HB 1 of the First Extraordinary Session of 2008 included judges in the required annual financial statements and mandatory ethics training and placed enforcement in the hands of an executive branch agency.

As I wrote, this struck some as a possible separation of powers, including the state’s Chief Justice who wrote a letter asking the legislature to remove the provision related to judges, assuring that the Supreme Court would issue rules with the same effect.

Ultimately the solution was that the Senate adopted a resolution asking the Supreme Court to impose financial disclosure on the judges similar to what had been adopted by law for the other officials (SR 6). The Supreme Court in fact did adopt a financial disclosure rule (Supreme Court Rule XXXIX) except for justices of the peace.

Despite the agreement reached in 2008, this isn’t the first time legislators have tried to statutorily impose disclosure on judges.

In 2010 SB 72 was filed to place judges under the provisions of the existing law. It was filed but failed to advance out of committee.

In 2015 several legislative efforts were made, starting again with putting judges under the existing statute (HB 294). It was heard in committee in May of that year. After the hearing the House considered HCR 195 and HR 127. Both requested the Louisiana Supreme Court make judicial financial disclosure reports available for viewing on the internet.  The HR was approved by the House, the HCR was never taken up.