Today’s a big day for hearings on bills affecting the judiciary

Several bills affecting the state courts are getting committee hearings today, (see update below) including:

Montana HB 332 (House Judiciary committee audio will be here) would permit jury nullification and require judges inform jurors they may judge both the facts and the law in the case> Judges would be required to provide jurors  state and federal constitutions and any statute books they request. In criminal cases, the judge would be required to inform jurors they may vote their conscience to acquit an accused in spite of technical guilt. Finally, the bill defines “obstruction” of these provisions as reversible error.

Meanwhile, Indiana’s Senate Judiciary committee (live streaming video here) will be considering two bills of particular note. SB 212 would move the state closer to a restructured system of consolidated trial courts. It provides that all circuit courts, superior courts, and probate courts have: (1) original and concurrent jurisdiction in all civil cases and in all criminal cases; (2) de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from city and town courts; and (3) in Marion County, de novo appellate jurisdiction of appeals from township small claims courts. The bill would also repeal authorization for the establishment and operation of county courts (since January 1, 2009, no county court exists in Indiana.).Also up for debate is SB 463 which would repeal all provisions that establish a mandatory retirement age for superior court and county court judges.

Update 2/2/11 @ 8:44 Eastern: The massive snow storm affecting most of the country has shut down the Indiana Legislature Tuesday and Wednesday. According to the legislature’s website, Senate hearings may be conducted Thursday.

Bills to increase penalties for filing false liens on judges, court personnel moving in AR and PA

Among the myriad of challenges facing judges and court staff beyond the threat of physical violence is the prospect of having liens and similar instruments filed on their homes. A federal law adopted in 2008 (and codified as 18 USC 1521) provides

Whoever files, attempts to file, or conspires to file, in any public record or in any private record which is generally available to the public, any false lien or encumbrance against the real or personal property of an individual described in [18 USCS § 1114], on account of the performance of official duties by that individual, knowing or having reason to know that such lien or encumbrance is false or contains any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.

In 2011, at least two states are looking at similar legislation.

Arkansas’  HB 1045 would make is a class C felony (punishable by 3 to 10 years in prison) to cloud or adversely affect the title or ownership of the property of a judge or other court personnel because of the performance of their official duties. That bill was approved by the House Committee on Judiciary 1/27/11 and adopted by the full House on 1/31/11.

A similar Pennsylvania bill (SB 50) would create the crime of “Simulated legal process” and includes within it “actions affecting title to real or personal property, indictments, subpoenas, warrants, injunctions, liens, orders, judgments or any legal documents or proceedings, knowing or having reason to know that the contents of the documents or proceedings or basis for the action to be fraudulent”. In addition SB 50 creates a separate crime (“Hindering public official”) when a person attempts “to influence, intimidate or hinder a public official or law enforcement officer in the discharge of his official duties by threat of or actual physical violence, harassment, through simulated legal process or by other unlawful act.” Both would be second degree misdemeanors punishable by up to two years imprisonment. SB 50 would also make specific crimes of tactics often used by “common law court” and militia/patriot groups such as “impersonating public official or legal tribunal” and use of unofficial license plates. SB 50 was introduced on January 12 and is currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Recently introduced e-filing bills

Cross-posted at the Court Technology Bulletin blog

Much has been made, particularly in the recent spate of State of the Judiciary Speeches, about the boon and promise of e-filing in state courts. In just the last week legislators in five states introduced or advanced bills related to the subject.

Arizona SB 1185 Would change the state’s existing laws that allow the Supreme Court and Superior Courts (pursuant to rules adopted by the Supreme Court) to have e-filing to require they do (“may” to “shall”) Moreover, the bill would require the electronic access to court records and add bulk data to required material the courts shall provide. It is currently in the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

Oregon HB 2690 (link to legislature’s website, no direct link to bill status page) takes a different tack. It allows the state;s Chief Justice to establish reasonable subscription fees, and other user and transaction fees, for remote access to case information and other Judicial Department forms, reports and services that are available in electronic form. Moreover, it modifies laws on filing of trial court transcripts on appeal to allow for the electronic filing of the transcript. It is in the House Judiciary Committee.

South Dakota HB 1038 requires the clerk of that state’s Supreme Court collect certain fees for the electronic transmission of court records. That bill was approved by the House Committee on Judiciary on January 21 and by the full House on January 25.

Virginia SB 1369 would allow Circuit Court Clerks to charge a fee of $25 for civil or criminal proceedings filed electronically and an additional $10 fee for subsequent filings in such proceedings. The funds would be directed to the clerk’s local fund to cover operational expenses of the electronic filing system.  That bill is currently in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Finally, Wyoming HB 190 offers what amounts to an e-filing discount of sorts. The bill provides for the electronic submittal of fees, fines, bonds and penalties to circuit courts and authorizes the Supreme Court to reduce the aforementioned fines, bonds and penalties if submitted electronically. That bill is currently in the House Judiciary Committee.

E-signed and e-delivered, but not e-sealed?

Signed, sealed and delivered is more than a Stevie Wonder song, it represents the attestation of an action or record of a court dating back centuries. Technology, however, has outpaced the days of wax and impressions. For that reason, several state legislatures have had to go back and change the laws of their states to allow their courts more latitude. Legislatures in Oklahoma (HB 2253 of 2004), Iowa (HB 579 of 2009), and Michigan (SB 720 of 2010)  all authorized all courts in their state to e-seal. Texas in 2007 (SB 229) gave its district court the authority to create a seal electronically, thus allowing the courts to transfer, store, and locate documents with greater efficiency.

This year, Nevada enters into the e-seal fray. SB 6 authorizes the electronic reproduction of the seal of a court (current law requires either impressing the seal on the document or impressing the seal on a substance attached to the document). The bill is currently pending in the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Cross-posted at Court Technology Bulletin blog

IA: Impeachment looming for justices due to same sex marriage decision?

Last month, three of Iowa’s seven justices were unseated in their retention elections, in large part due to the court’s unanimous ruling that the state’s constitution required the legalization of same-sex marriage. Opponents of the three warned and urged the remaining four justices to resign from the bench. At least 3 members of the Iowa House, however, have no inclination to wait and see if the four will in fact step down and have prepared articles of impeachment. (h/t Des Moines Register).

The state’s constitution provides justices and others  “shall be liable to impeachment for any misdemeanor or malfeasance in office” with a simple majority required for impeachment. Conviction in the Senate, however, would require a two-thirds vote.

Iowa is but the latest of states to threaten the impeachment of judges or justices based solely on their decisions. Details can be found in this post as well as a Gavel to Gavel Focus piece from 2007 (located here).

FL: Mandatory e-filing in criminal cases

Earlier in 2010, Gavel to Gavel looked at efforts by state legislatures to mandate more electronic filing of court documents. Much of the focus was on civil cases, however Florida’s Senate is considering a plan to press for criminal case e-filing. SB 170 of 2011 would require prosecutors and public defenders to e-file documents with the clerk of court and report back on March 1, 2012 on the implementation of the program to the legislature.

Cross-posted at Court Technology Bulletin blog

AL: Lobbying to include efforts to obtain judicial branch contracts

Current law in Alabama, indeed in most places, defines lobbying to include efforts to promote or oppose legislation or regulatory action. In all such cases the focus is either on the legislature OR the executive branch OR an administrative agency. Alabama’s Legislature, however, is on the verge of expanding the definition of lobbying to include “promoting or attempting to influence the award of a contract or grant by the executive, legislative, or judicial branch“. According to the latest information from The Birmingham News, the Alabama Senate’s Ethics Committee passed that language as part of HB 11 (Special Session) on Monday.  Due to the addition of an amendment in the Senate, the bill would have to be readopted by the House before submission to the Governor, which could happen as early as next week.