‘You cannot turn the clock back on transparency’ 

 

michael lewis 'against the rules' podcast graphic -- cotin.org
Michael Lewis’s Against the Rules — a podcast in seven parts — is indispensable listening for anyone anxious to see technology deployed forensically to stamp out the injustice that follows when powerful people duck laws and regulations

What if the performance of judges across the U.S. could be monitored by an equivalent of the National Basketball Association’s four year-old, high-tech, Replay Center — in which referees vet the fairness and accuracy of other referees in games played across the country, without delay?

This web site’s focus on using technology to make today’s too often strictly nominal courts of justice radically transparent — and so, fully accountable to citizens — is in perfect sync with Against the Rules, a podcast by Michael Lewis, who is best-known as the author of Moneyball and The Big Short. 

Launching his series in late April, he explained to The New York Times that his subject was ‘all the poorly refereed corners of life’ — and growing, mass outrage about the reflexive tendency of ‘[t]he privileged to try to protect what they have by evading authority and regulation.’

In the podcast’s introductory segment, one of Lewis’s interviewees tells him that ‘whether it’s in baseball or any other walk of life, you cannot turn the clock back on transparency.’ 

Nor is there going to be any more reflexive genuflecting before undeserved or unearned authority, in any profession or post — even if it is only this one class of sport referee, in American basketball, that has so far acquired such a comprehensive, systematised check on its latitude for biased, corrupt, or otherwise delinquent behaviour. As Lewis sums up his discoveries about its genesis and effects, ’Everyone believed that the only way to ensure the fairness of the game was to let the referee play God. The Replay Center is an admission that the referee is not God — and that he makes mistakes.’

It is an innovation that appears to have been a great success. Nothing could gladden the hearts of fighters for genuine impartiality and fairness more than the evidence of changes in the right direction that the Replay Center appears to have brought about.

What follows are extracts from the transcript of ‘Hoop Reams,’ an edition of National Public Radio’s This American Life that featured a special condensation of Against the Rules — after a framing narrative by Ira Glass, the show’s host.

Ira Glass: The journalist Michael Lewis, … was looking around at what’s going on in America these days. And he noticed that one way you can describe the current moment that we’re all living through is that Americans don’t trust the refs — in all walks of life. They don’t trust their impartiality.

I’m talking about police, Supreme Court justices, journalists, the people who regulate the banks and Wall Street and student loans, the people setting medical costs, judges. So many people today feel the system is rigged. I mean, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both ran on that. So many people feel that the figures of authority, charged with enforcing rules impartially, keeping everybody on a level playing field, that they’re failing at their jobs.

[ … ]

Michael Lewis: … So we’re walking across a parking lot in Secaucus, New Jersey. And there are chain hotels and motels in someone’s idea of a mall. And we’re surrounded on all sides by freeways. … And we’re approaching a four-story, rectangular, otherwise nondescript concrete building.

There’s a discreet little sign here that says NBA and shows a logo with a basketball player. Inside, a recent concession to the world we live in– the Replay Center, a place where basketball referees review the calls made by other basketball referees in real time, to minimize referee error. The Replay Center was built to persuade people that life was fair.

… It’s wall-to-wall screens, 110 of them. What’s on them is whatever is captured by all the cameras in 29 NBA arenas across the country. They may have a screen somewhere with scores on it, but I didn’t see it. And they’re all muted. What you hear is referees staring at basketball games. What you see is nothing but angles on professional basketball courts.

… These Replay Center refs have video technicians with them, who can freeze a moment on screen, then zoom out or zoom in so that the entire screen contains only a player’s fingertips or his toes. Here you just scroll through tiny slivers of the game, not the game itself. The sliver is where injustices might occur.

[ … ]

Justin Wolfers: Look, I don’t really like writing papers about sports. I’d prefer to write about the economy.

Michael Lewis: That’s Justin Wolfers, a behavioral economist at the University of Michigan, and the co-author of a paper about NBA refs.

Justin Wolfers: But the thing is, this is a domain where the NBA referees have tremendous incentives not to make the wrong call. Every error they make is tracked. Those errors determine whether they get more games. Those games determine how much they get paid. This is arguably the most analyzed workforce in the country.

Michael Lewis: Basketball referees are now picked apart in ways that not long ago would have seemed preposterous– not just for the fairness of their calls but for their unconscious behavior. Wolfers took data from over a decade of NBA basketball games, more than 250,000 of them. Then he set out to look for evidence of the refs’ racial bias.

Justin Wolfers: The question here isn’t whether people are anti-black or anti-white but whether there’s an in-group bias. So if a predominately black team is playing and the refereeing crew is predominantly white, are there more fouls called against them than on nights when the same team is playing with a predominantly black refereeing crew? And it turns out, the answer is yes.

Michael Lewis: Wolfers wrote his paper back in 2007, before this new age of referee transparency. … And the NBA wasn’t happy. The commissioner at the time attacked the study and embarrassed the league by trying and failing to refute its findings. … When the dust settled, Justin Wolfers was curious to know if his paper had had any effect. He made another study of referees after the controversy he’d created. And guess what.

Justin Wolfers: The most recent study that we did seems to suggest that that form of racial bias has gone away.

Michael Lewis: For a while anyway. He has no idea why. Maybe simply making the refs aware of the problem was enough to correct it. By the way, the NBA disputes this study too. But in the end, this became a case study — not in ref ineptitude but in ref reform. NBA refs have now achieved what police forces can only dream of, though the refs have no choice. The world’s now too good at seeing their mistakes.

Regular readers of COTIN will remember last year’s post about the clear, incontrovertible evidence of racial bias in the rulings of American judges in the findings of Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang, for their study at the Harvard Law School — in the course of which they examined over 500,000 sentences handed down by nearly 1,400 federal judges between 1999 and 2015. 

Imagine the difference that a Replay Center counterpart for judges could make to that pattern of injustice — for a start.

Bad news for everyone hoping to make judges in the largest U.S. court system accountable for their actions: so far, they have deflected attention from the California Auditor’s findings about them

Extract from the 25 April 2019 report by the California Auditor on the Commission on Judicial Performance - COTIN.org
Above: excerpts from the report by the California Auditor on one barrier to investigations by the judge monitor — the Commission on Judicial Performance — of complaints about judges by lawyers and litigants.  Below: quotation of George Clooney in The Daily Mail, 10 October 2017

George Clooney, quoted in The Daily Mail 10 October 2017 - COTIN.org

In 2018, the World Justice Project — not international in origin, like the United Nations, but a brainchild of the American Bar Association — tried to quantify the ill effects of litigation on litigants, with international comparisons. It collected survey respondents’ answers to a question about whether they had experienced  ‘stress-related illness’ — among other forms of hardship — in trying to resolve their legal problems. One discovery was that an almost identical proportion of respondents in the U.S., U.K. and Canada — just under a third — answered in the affirmative.

There was no comparable attempt by the California Auditor, Elaine Howle, to measure unpleasant consequences for litigants and lawyers of the failures of judge monitors at the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) to do their job responsibly or competently. Humanising her findings and helping the public to relate to them was not part of her remit in ‘the first audit of an agency that receives more than 1,000 complaints about judges each year and publicly disciplines fewer than 10,’ according to The San Francisco Chronicle.

Had the Auditor been able to simply name judges who have been the subject of accusations, and their accusers — with outlines of their grievances — the audit’s results would have automatically become relatable for people outside the legal community. But by suing the Auditor in an attempt to prevent the investigation of its operations — the only one in the nearly 60 years since it was founded  — the CJP contrived to suppress all references to real-life identities. It made keeping that information out of public view a condition of settling the dispute — a demand to which the Auditor had to agree, to unfreeze the audit after two years of legalistic wrangling.

Without narratives animated by experiences of actual, flesh-and-blood citizens, and no hint of the despair of the 99 per cent of complainants whose submissions to the CJP led to no publicly-known consequences for judges, the Auditor’s report has received  practically no media attention — aside from terse summaries in specialised legal media and California newspapers of record. 

As this state has the largest court system in the U.S., it is surprising that national media have so far failed to show any sign of noticing the following devices — among others — that the California judiciary has used to screen itself off from oversight by anyone but fellow-judges, to avert censure and reform:

  • Useless, out-of-date tools: As COTIN readers saw last month, the decrepit computer system still being used by the CJP to process complaints in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century was a quarter-century old. Members of the public had every reason to assume that they should be able to make those submissions from their smartphones as effortlessly as filing tax returns online, but instead had to deal with mailing paper forms in stamped envelopes. The computer which, according to the Auditor’s report, CJP staff could neither run nor repair, was of the same vintage as floppy disks mouldering in basements, wreathed in cobwebs — as handy as a horse-and-buggy on a five-lane freeway.
  • Holes in trial records: Another revelation in the audit report was that the CJP’s investigations into several cases were superficial and incomplete because of a lack of court transcripts — objective, word-for-word records of exactly what the judge in a particular trial said and did. The Auditor quoted the CJP’s own statement about this handicap, in testifying before an Assembly Budget Subcommittee in 2016 — but had little sympathy for the implication that there was nothing that the judge monitor could do about this: ‘If CJP believes the absence of court transcripts or recordings regularly impedes its ability to conduct investigations, it should expand its efforts to inform policymakers’ about that lack.
  • Terminating the creation of transcripts of trial proceedings at public expense: Courts have been laying off court reporters for years. The complete record by a professional trained in accurate transcribing of what happens in the trial of a case is indispensable for any litigant who wants to take a decision by a trial judge to a court of appeal for vetting and possible overruling. But in another quotation of the CJP, the Auditor’s report records that ‘many courts were responding to budget cuts by eliminating court reporter services.’ This trend and excuse in one of the world’s richest regions is curious, to say the least.
  • Destroying court records: Courts have been deliberately and systematically destroying records of court proceedings. On another part of this site, COTIN has drawn attention to the unconvincing claim by courts that — even though digital storage is cheap and its costs have shrunk spectacularly, decade after decade — economic considerations dictate that many case records must be destroyed, on a prescribed schedule. 

Sooner or later, anyone weighing these facts is bound to wonder about the failure of thousands of conscientious California judges and lawyers to raise the alarm — professionals well aware of the degree to which bad judges are assisted in covering their tracks and evading punishment, but saying nothing about this to taxpayers.  They have stayed silent, despite the obligation that their code of conduct imposes on them:

As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession. [… A] lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.

It would be heartening to learn that any members of the profession suffer agonies of private guilt about their failure to speak up and push for reform. As the actor George Clooney said at the height of the #MeToo uproar,

I suppose the argument would be that […] every time you see someone using their power and influence to take advantage of someone without power and influence and you don’t speak up, you’re complicit.