Opticians and optometrists could be excused for being a touch grandiose about what was always going to be the Year of Optometry. But it is hard to say why a 1993 panel of 43 Californians charged by leaders of the state judiciary with brainstorming about reforming the legal system recorded dreams of progress, by 2020, that must have seemed absurd even a quarter-century ago.
The Commission on the Future of the California Courts, staffed by a wide range of distinguished professionals, was designed by the Chief Justice of the day — Malcolm Lucas — to address ‘a widespread public perception that the judicial branch is in need of major repair’.Although it took two years to produce its report, this contained nothing resembling a plan of action. As an exercise in so-called alternative futures planning, its objective was merely to inspire planning for a ‘preferred’ future with a ‘vision statement’ — something like conjuring up fake sizzles to encourage the butchering and barbecuing of an actual steak.
Its inclusion of a ‘wild card’ proposal for a judiciary so sublimely capable that it ‘is ascendant and has assumed responsibility for virtually all the functions of government’ in California was justified by pointing to space travel and the collapse of the Soviet Union as evidence of the power of dreaming big.
But that and virtually all the Commission’s other visions make for exceedingly sad reading on the cusp of 2020, and three months after the release of preliminary findings of the state bar’s investigation into a ‘justice gap’— ‘the first comprehensive study on the need for civil [ rather than criminal ] legal assistance in California.’
IT IS 2020. In both perception and practice the California courts are scrupulously fair, accessible to all. […] IT IS 2020. Justice’s greatest asset is its servants, who in every action personify respect for public service and a commitment to the public’s interest. Judges and other dispute resolution providers are the embodiments of excellence. They are culturally competent, representative of the genders, races, and ethnicities they serve. They are community leaders, outspoken advocates for justice in its broadest sense.
The October 2019 interim update of the California bar’s study — scheduled for completion on 31 December, which happens to be tomorrow — included these highlights:
While all of the problems asked about in the survey could have been legally actionable, legal help was only sought and received for about 3 in 10 of them. … Lack of knowledge and concerns about cost are substantial barriers for not seeking legal help. …Overall, when it comes to perceptions of the civil legal system, Californians at or below [ the poverty level ] are more likely to have negative perceptions than those earning more. They are less likely to feel that they can use the courts to protect themselves (39% vs. 45%) and that they are treated fairly by the courts (34% vs. 45%) most or all of the time. … Most Californians do not receive legal help: 27 percent of low-income Californians received some legal help, while 34 percent of higher-income Californians did. … Experience with the legal system […] is not associated with confidence in the system …
In other words, Californians were just as unhappy with their justice system in 2019 as they were in 1993.
The virtual invisibility of the Judicial Council and its concerns with reform, even within professional circles, was the subject of remark in 1975, when an opinion survey revealed “that only 7 percent of the lawyers admitted to practice [in California] . . . have ever heard of [ … it …].” … In 1980 students of the Judicial Council’s record contended that […it…] had “consciously remained extremely conservative in its scope of interest and its willingness to apply pressure for implementation of its policies,” …
What he was really saying is what one COTIN entry after another — including last month’s post about the disciplining of bad judges — has been spotlighting. Nothing about the way the California judiciary and the rest of the legal system operate will change in the right direction until California’s judges stop obstructing reform.
But this is the brink of a new year, and it is incumbent on us all to be hopeful.
All the signs so far suggest that COTIN’s pessimism is more than justified — about the likelihood that the deliberately lax, inefficient body charged with disciplining corrupt, incompetent and misbehaving California judges will be reformed urgently, if at all. This site’s gloomy spring and early summer prognostications on that topic followed the publication on 25 April of the California Auditor’s minutely detailed exposé of the workings of that body — the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP).
Here are links to essential reading for anyone who wishes to know exactly how the California judiciary has since been evading the Auditor’s diligent attempt to correct injustice, through tactics that fit the judges’ historic tendency to rank ‘protecting their own’ above the public interest:
• Shielding judges from public complaints and criticism (but not the public, from bad judges) was immediately given the highest priority
The Auditor, Elaine Howle, has no means of directly or semi-directly translating her organisation’s recommendations for reforming the CJP into action. She has to accomplish that through Sacramento politicians — that is, win the support of members of the California State Assembly. According to The Reporter, in a29 June article,
A state legislative committee earlier this month issued several proposals, including an amendment to the state Constitution,that would make investigations of alleged judicial misconduct more fair to judges and, at the same time, increase public awareness of a commission that hears complaints about judges and disciplines them, … [ COTIN’s highlighting ]
In view of the seriousness of the wrongs in dire, urgent need of righting — and given that the Auditor’s report was related to the mistreatment of litigants by rogue judges, rather than the reverse — should the committee have made an issue of the sensitivities of the judiciary, at this time?
• Somehow, the CJP failed to meet its deadline for applying for the money it needs to start implementing the Auditor’s recommendations for its reform
This past April, the much-anticipated California State Audit reviewing the Commission on Judicial Performance (CJP) exposed a crisis in the state’s only judicial oversight agency, which allows for severe judicial misconduct to persist. In order to enact the changes set forth in the audit, the CJP should have requested funding from the State by the June deadline. However, they missed it, using, as executive director Kathleen Russell stated, a “classic stalling tactic” to continue resisting efforts to change its practices.
• The second stage of California legislators’ investigation of precisely what needs to be done about judicial misconduct was somehow postponed to 2020
In a conventional prelude to action by lawmakers, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) held a hearing in Sacramento on 12 June to discuss the Auditor’s recommendations. It was set for continuation in October, but that did not happen. Katie Guthrie in the office of the committee’s chairman, Rudy Salas, said on 15 October that no date had been set for the next stage of JLAC’s discussion of the CJP, but that she might be able to answer that question for COTIN in December or after 6 January, when the Assembly reconvenes.
Probably, the involvement of the youngest California voters.
Mark Zuckerberg, and the WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, whose blogging platform’s home page proclaims that it ‘powers 34% of the internet’ (not excluding COTIN) — were both born in 1984. Their vintage makes their achievements especially astounding, and that is in keeping with the apparent trend for the world’s most effective revolutionaries — whether driven by greed or pure conscience — to be getting younger every year. But if Mark and Matt were computer systems, they would have been consigned to crematoriums decades ago. This would be true if they were not 35 but 25 years old — or the same age as the IT system that the Auditor found the CJP using to process complaints about judges by lawyers and litigants in 2018. As noted on this site last summer, this has meant that instead of accepting complaint forms through email or via a web site, the CJP was using Californians’ tax dollars to pay staff for retyping postal submissions from complainants into its prehistoric IT marvel, keystroke by keystroke.
There is no way to interpret that other than as proof of the lengths to which the judges’ disciplinary authority has gone to avoid disciplining judges.
Surely California needs a firebreathing activist, an equivalent of 16 year-old Greta Thunberg — nine years younger than the CJP computer system — to emerge from the populace and get to work?
The Center for Judicial Excellence (CJE) in Northern California, founded and run by Kathleen Russell, has been among the most vigorous and prominent campaigners against judicial misconduct in the state — and is widely seen as the principal prod responsible for the official audit of the CJP.
Child custody rulings outnumber all other cases of alleged misconduct in which the CJE intervenes to assist litigants who believe that they have been hurt by those decisions. Too many are horrific and heart-stopping. It could be appropriate for some of the older children — teenagers — in such cases to model themselves on Ms Thunberg and draw attention to the harm that can be inflicted on families and individuals from judicial benches whose occupants are demonstrably guilty of bias, incompetence, failure to follow the law, or all three.
In general, kids start waving signs when adults are slow to act, and, according to Alcides Velasquez, who researches social media and political activism and participation at the University of Kansas, there is a perception among adults that children will be more effective at trumpeting future-looking messages. (Also, as political commentator Tucker Carlson pointed out, it’s harder to justify eviscerating a child for political gain.) That’s only the most cynical piece of Thunberg’s appeal, though. “We learn from observing people who are similar to us,” he says. “If you want young people to get involved, showing them that another teenager can do this type of stuff will be very empowering.” He also notes that youth demonstrations, like the climate marches Thunberg and others have led, put direct pressure on reelection-minded public officials: “They’re going to be voting in three, four, five years, and politicians will be feeling the pressure.”
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 receivedpractically 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.
In the panic over the infamous Y2K or millennium bug two decades ago, poorly paid Indian computer coders became the outsourcing miracle that staved off chaos as they toiled to correct the software error that had made the world’s computers incapable of shifting into the dates of a new millennium. Because their work resembled dull clerical labour, few in the West — even among the highly-educated and well-travelled — understood the implications of this labour pool’s existence. They could not see that it was only the unimpressive (if mission-critical) end of far deeper technological expertise and potential. It was impossible to convince them that India would ever be capable of much more than providing hives of software coolies — even though Bill Gates, still at Microsoft’s helm at the time, said that it would be extremely difficult to run his company without its Chinese and Indian software engineers.
Twenty years later, Microsoft and Google are being run by chief executives born in India and mostly educated there.
There remain sceptics who refuse to acknowledge that Asia could soon be more than a match for the U.S. and other leading Western nations in virtually all the most significant technologies. It is hard to see how they can explain away — for instance — this passage in ‘China gains the upper hand over Germany,’ a report by Wolfgang Münchau published in The Financial Times on 3 March:
The two countries do have a lot in common. [ … ] But Germany’s economic strategy is not nearly as consistent. The German political preference is to reduce public debt. Yet the country’s biggest problem is falling behind in the technological race. Excessive fiscal consolidation has been the main cause of under-investment in roads, telecoms networks, and other new technologies.
What he says there fits what frequent intercontinental flyers have been remarking on for at least fifteen years — that Asia has been overtaking the West in updating infrastructure, especially airports and roads, even if large segments of the Chinese and Indian populations continue to live in primitive housing and can lack facilities as basic as toilets. Technological progress andmodernising infrastructure are apparently part of the same feedback loop, as much a fact of life in those countries as dire poverty.
This paradoxical reality accounts for the experts’ inability to agree on whether or not the world is on the brink of a so-called ‘Asian century’ — in which the continent on which India and China coexist replaces the West as the world’s economic powerhouse, on its way to military and cultural dominance. If the facts truly support a headline in the same newspaper last week — ‘The Asian century is about to begin’ — the future tense will soon no longer serve for discussions of this topic. A London School of Economics conference on it at the start of this month was timed to coincide with the launch of The Future is Asian, a book by an Indian-American public intellectual, Parag Khanna. The counter-arguments in older books, such as The Rise and Decline of the Asian Century: False Starts on the Path to the Global Millennium, published in 1998, have been eclipsed by strong, recent economic trends.
What does any of that have to do with this web site’s focus on translating the digital revolution into the redesign of the legal system and courts? Just this: it cannot be a mere coincidence that here, too, the leaders are the Asian giants, China and India, and not the West — with the notable exception of Britain,in spite the monumental distractions of Brexit.
A country’s legal system is crucial in the social counterpart of the physical infrastructure that holds it together.
Monitoring and delving into the progress of the litigation revolution across the world was never the purpose of this site. Through a single, fully substantiated case study, COTIN is intended to demonstrate how genuinely open or ‘transparent’ legal proceedings accessible by anyone would almost certainly have made the lamentable markers of this case inconceivable — a judge wholly unqualified and struggling, by her own admission, to adjudicate in a branch of law in which she had no experience whatsoever, in a trial skewed blatantly for the benefit of a colleague on the bench.
Questions about whether and when digital communication and broadcasting would be deployed by courts in California and the rest of America to achieve that transparency have led to discovering that they are laggards in this transformation. Entries on this site about courts at the forefront of change — in faraway countries — are based on woefully incomplete information, but they should encourage American media with the large long-distance travel budgets that this subject deserves to fill in the blanks. They include:
… Surely it’s time for an American presidential candidate from either party to run on bringing U.S. law and the courts into the 21st century? Start a campaign for yoking digital technology to putting justice within the reach of the poor and comparatively powerless? That there has been no such initiative, no parallel in […]
In his 1987 magnum opus The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes sketches the early days of his country’s legal system — in which prisoners of the state served time as farm workers in ‘the continental prison that was Australia.’ When they were abused by their masters, they had to go to court for help. In the 1800s, ‘[d]istrict benches close to Sydney were apt to treat convicts fairly and well, partly because their magistrates were more in the public eye.’ Where there was less transparency or none, justice was a scarce commodity: ‘[T]he further outback a farm was, the more opportunity it held for tyranny and the more likelihood there was of collusion between settlers and magistrates.’
Outside museums, no ordinary visitor to the land Down Under can detect any trace of its convict-society past. But today’s Australians are as eager as people on every continent to see how transparency through live-streamed court proceedings can sanitise their justice system. Whether from experiences as plaintiffs, defendants or court insiders, from civil or criminal trials, there is no shortage of witnesses capable of testifying in jurisdictions almost anywhere in the world that versions of this account from settler-era Australia quoted by Hughes are still playing out — far removed from public oversight:
One magistrate will bring his men to be tried before a neighbour magistrate, and it is a frequent practice for the master to pay a private visit to the magistrate, and say he is going to bring such a man or men before him, and wishes that such or such particular punishment may be dealt out. On the arrival of the men … the magistrate enquires what they have to say in answer to this charge, and frequently […] interrupts them, saying “I will not believe a word you have to say, and I shall sentence you to receive so many lashes.”
‘We are all pushing on this boulder,’ read the message of encouragement from a fellow-campaigner for exposing injustice in California, reacting to last month’s entry on COTIN. The boulder is the resistance of too many American courts, including the very highest one, to streaming trials on the internet in real time — an evolutionary jump in which the golden state famous as a crucible of innovation and for pioneering social legislation is trailing other states at a lackadaisical pace. This is not because courts in California work too well to warrant close, daily public scrutiny. Rankings of judicial accountability by state, published by the Center for Public Integrity in 2015, point to the opposite conclusion. The blog of the California Supreme Court noted:
In the CPI’s just-published report on California, the state judiciary received an F grade. This is a significant drop from the C-minus California received in 2012, the last time the CPI evaluated the state.
Yet Media Law Monitorrecorded in 2016 that ‘[w]ith its new live-streaming video,’ California’s Supreme Court became merely ‘the 35th state court of last resort to provide live or near-live online video access to its proceedings’— at about the same time asAlaska, Michigan, South Carolina and Delaware.
In a parallel that seems just as unlikely, given America’s status as the most influential digital technology pioneer, the U.S. is being overtaken by most countries whose legal systems have their roots in the English common law tradition — a group that includes India, despite its economic disadvantages and sprawling and unwieldy network of courts serving a population three times larger. Writing for The Guardian in August about Britain — whose Supreme Court went live on the net in 2011, and Court of Appeal made its maiden appearance on YouTube last month — the eminent London barrister Geoffrey Robertson said, in welcoming the prospect of television cameras in lower courts,
Barristers frequently wish they could include as a ground of appeal an objection to a trial judge’s prejudicial tone of voice or body language – prejudice which is not apparent from reading a trial transcript. […]
There will always be claims of privacy, but trials are public occasions. […] My own experience in proceedings in other countries has been that televising trials means that the barristers are better prepared, the judges better behaved, and the public better informed.
If any U.S. lawyer of comparable seniority or any high-ranking judge has expressed similar sentiments in public, they have gone strikingly unreported. There have been very few reports of the legal profession recommending or cheering for truly open court proceedings, viewable live and online, in U.S. newspapers — in startling contrast to other common law countries.
Assisted unwittingly by an uniformed public, and by politicians who have failed to make this an election issue, the U.S. Supreme Court has dug in its heels about rejecting live streaming. This explains why federal courts and several oftheir state counterparts continue to hold out against the admission of disinfecting sunlight into their deliberations. In late 2017, Ars Technica reported:
The Supreme Court is setting aside a request to live stream its oral arguments. The attorney for Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. told members of Congress that live streaming even the audio portion of its oral arguments might impact the outcome. […]
“I am sure you are … familiar with the Justices’ concerns [ that ] the live broadcast or streaming of oral arguments … could adversely affect the character and quality of the dialogue between the attorneys and Justices. Consequently, the Court is unable to accommodate your request.”
Cross-national comparisons on this topic suggest a consensus about the need for transparency being most acute in courts at the local level, close to the human dramas in which rights are being asserted — rather than in appellate courts, wherejustices debate airy, often arcane, legal abstractions. This is evident in, for instance, readers’ comments (see screen shots below) on a Times of India story in September titled ‘People can watch courtroom drama live, SC allows live-streaming of court proceedings’— which, with minor adjustments for place, could easily have been made on behalf of millions in other countries where courts are making this transition.
A legal system functioning honestly and correctly is the proof of a civilised society. But as taxpayers grow less and less confident that it is doing so, serving their needs, that foundation becomes progressively more unstable. Before any repair work can be done, they need to be able to see exactly what in happening in the courts. Transparency, followed by resolute, persistent corrective action. Simply and eloquently, in the same chapter of The Fatal Shore quoted at the start of this entry, Hughes states a profound truth:
Rights emerge by bargaining between the powerful and the relatively powerless; they are not simply granted, for if they were, there would be none. … Rights are solidified claims, sanctioned by use and expectation.
In a parable for newspaper reporters about missing the story, probably from the era of figures squinting under green eyeshades at clickety-clack typewriters, an unripe hack returns to the office to tell his editor that he has nothing to fill the space on the front page saved for his review of the new play. Why? Because the theatre, the only one in town, caught on fire just before curtain time and was burnt to the ground.
Deservedly or not, there was a glancing reminder of that legend in the mostly blank screens in all media, where there might have been analysis of the improbable 2018 judges’ election in San Francisco. When the results were announced on the night of 5 June and since then, the few reports on the contest between four sitting judges and their unexpected challengers — four public defenders, poorly-paid lawyers assigned to defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford to hire one — merely recorded that this attempt at a radical shake-up of the bench failed because all the incumbents won enough votes to retain their positions.
Once again, this site — COTIN — found itself agreeing on every point with an attentive Martian observer of the happenings in a conversation that sparked fresh, alarming reminders of the case study featured here :
Martian:Did no one notice that despite the sitting judges’ advantage of years of appearing before their fellow-earthlings in black robes designed to awe and threaten, their victories were not necessarily landslides — less than 70 per cent of the votes cast?
COTIN: Quite so. The most successful winner, Andrew Cheng, defeated his opponent, Phoenix Streets, by a margin of 28 points (64 per cent of the votes). Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee — though she was lucky enough to be the only incumbent with two challengers, who weakened the vote against her — kept her seat with only a 25-point overall margin: 62 per cent of the votes, compared to 27 per cent for Kwixuan Maloof, her more successful rival, and 10 per cent for the other. Curtis Karnow placed a scant 8 points ahead of his challenger, Maria Evangelista (54/46), and Jeffrey Ross won by 19 points over his opponent, Niki Solis (59/40).
Martian: Are elections on Earth supposed to happen like this? None of the challengers did any campaigning, according to our extra-planetary intelligence nerds. None of them even named the judges they were running against, as if they were spectres. Nor did they attack or say a critical word about their records on the bench — though I saw that supporters of the contestant for Curtis Karnow’s seat did all they could to broadcast his history of rulings hostile to rent control.
Consider another. Nothing in the rules prohibits public defenders from campaigning to unseat and replace judges. But with the election on the horizon, this makes them players challenging referees for their positions while still playing in refereed matches. That is, they have to keep appearing in court as advocates and supplicants, hoping that the judges supporting their fellow-judges will not punish them or exact revenge for being so bold.
Martian: But they were punished publicly, weren’t they? Didn’t you say on COTIN that senior judges and politicians ripped into them after they announced their candidacies?
COTIN: An astounding, savage, spectacle. Yes. The public defenders obviously made their announcement about running jointly because they foresaw correctly that people in high places would be furious that they were exercising their right to compete for judicial offices — as their colleague Matt Gonzalez has recorded in a splendid encapsulation. They joined forces to protect each other. But who’d have thought that the state’s entire legal Establishment — including top-ranking appellate judges who are meant to be shining models of impartiality — would unite and turn on them the way it did?
Martian: The newspaper headlines about this contest were even more astounding. Two, especially — alternatives for the same opinion piece in The Sacramento Bee. One read, ‘Mobs targeting judges will wreck democracy’; the other, ‘Mobs are going after the judiciary this election. Don’t let them corrupt the law.’ What mobs? And where was the guillotine?
COTIN: When you looked under those headlines, all you found was outrage about the challengers emphasising that the four sitting judges were appointed by Republican governors, and that they believed that the bench should have more appointees beholden to a governor from the other party. It was obvious that the public defenders had to concentrate on making just a general point because they dared not risk criticising their opponents as individuals.
But this, along with obliging the judges to seek voters’ permission to stay in office, was framed as ‘politicising’ judicial selection in a system in which judges are usually known publicly as either Democrats or Republicans.
Martian: Yes, and they were accused of threatening judicial independence.
COTIN: Read the American-owned Encyclopaedia Britannica’s excellent entry on judicial independence — which means, essentially, allowing judges to do their jobs without pressure or undue influence from any quarter — and you will be more baffled yet. For a start, it makes it clear that there are two ways to look at any campaign to replace a judge — one of which is that it is a fundamental democratic right in a legal system designed like America’s.
The EB says that ‘it is difficult, if not impossible, to create a perfectly independent judiciary that is completely insulated from all forms of political and popular influence.’ It refers to the history of the increasingly partisan and frankly political U.S. Supreme Court to hammer home that fact.
Readers of the case to which this site is devoted — especially the Treatment of Law section — will be reminded of it in this passage of the EB’s discussion:
[I]f judicial independence is ensured at the individual level, individual judges will find themselves at liberty to pursue their individual preferences. Unchecked discretion of that kind not only invites abuse but also raises the likelihood that judges will decide cases in inconsistent ways, with the potential effect of undermining the predictability and stability of the law.
Martian: So, why didn’t the critics shouting about this 2018 judges’ election destroying judicial independence mention those other dimensions?
COTIN: Why indeed. Members of a profession dedicated to debate pretended that there was only one side to this ideal — that ‘judicial independence’ translates as making judges free to do as they please.
The fuss about independence was a smokescreen. It succeeded brilliantly in diverting attention from what the public defenders were trying to highlight — which is, their belief that San Francisco needs more judges from racial minorities. Not least because members of some minorities make up a staggering majority of the prison population — at least partly because of what the challengers say is racial bias in sentencing.
Martian: Just their opinion, or a substantiated fact?
COTIN: As it happens, it is now well-substantiated — in a new research paper published on 7 May, nearly a whole month before the election. It was featured high up on the home page of The New York Times the week before the judges’ election, in a column by Adam Liptak with a photograph of a California prison. He quoted an authority on sentencing law who said described it as ‘amazing new empirical research’.
But in spite of its critical significance in the judges’ election in San Francisco, it seems — from a trawl through search engines — that only one local newspaper carried any reference to it. Even then, The San Francisco Chronicle did not run its own report about the new research. It republished the one that ran in The Washington Post.
Martian:And the gist of the study’s findings was — ?
COTIN: That the political parties to which judges belong or owe their positions do unquestionably influence sentencing. The Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham summarised their conclusion:
Federal judges appointed by Republican presidents give black defendants sentences that are, on average, six to seven months longer than the sentences they give to similar white defendants, according to a new working paper from Alma Cohen and Crystal Yang of the Harvard Law School.
That racial sentencing disparity is about twice as large as the one observed among judges appointed by Democrats, who give black defendants sentences that are three to four months longer than the sentences they give to white defendants with similar histories who commit similar crimes.
To arrive at these numbers, Cohen and Yang examined over 500,000 sentences handed down by nearly 1,400 federal judges between 1999 and 2015.
Martian: So the Chronicle published a report, but without an editorial or any comment — or reference to the public defenders’ campaign statement and mission? And there was no discussion at all of those findings in San Francisco media?
COTIN: Any reader who finds a record of one will please post a link in the comment box below this post.
There is rarely any talk about the doings of the California judiciary, about which the citizens know far too little to cast their votes for judges. These are judges ferociously resisting any monitoring of their performance and correction.
COTIN: Why, yes — at the risk of being tiresomely repetitious!
Between roughly a third and half of the San Francisco electorate — those who ignored the sermonising from on high to vote against the incumbent judges — must be ready for justice not merely done but seen to be done, by streaming the process on the net.
Perhaps these voters did that because they — or someone they know well — had the misfortune to seek justice locally and see for themselves that something is truly rotten in parts of the California judiciary.
Martian: Ah, California as the new Denmark? (Where art thou, dear Hamlet?) Let’s hope not …
Martian spectators at the contest for four San Francisco judges’ seats in state election campaigning are surely rubbing their antennae in disbelief.
Why aren’t earthlings dissecting and debating furious objections to the contest by some of California’s most powerful judges?
J. Anthony Kline, for example, is a senior presiding justice of the state’s Court of Appeal, where litigants must go to seek corrections of decisions by lower (‘trial’ or ‘superior’) courts. In his scathing opinion piece in The San Francisco Chronicle about four public defender-lawyers challenging four incumbent judges for their seats on the city’s bench, he wrote:
The effort to defeat four of the most able, compassionate, and experienced judges in Northern California simply because they were appointed by a Republican governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic county is an unmitigated act of political opportunism.[…] [W]hatever the intentions of the challengers may be, the effect of their effort threatens to undermine the independence and integrity of the California judiciary.
Of course Justice Kline was exercising his right to free speech. But for anyone brought up with the idea of a judge as all but synonymous with strict and unbending impartiality, it was a shock to read not just his fiercely partisan argument in favour of four incumbent judges, but its near-perfect echo in a legal newspaper by an even higher-ranking member of the judiciary, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar of the California Supreme Court.
If appellate court justices — by effectively backing particular lower-court judges whose work they are supposed to vet for fairness and accuracy — create emotional bonds with them, how can they be objective when they have to scrutinise their reasoning and rulings?
And what happens to any challenger lucky enough to win enough votes to defeat a rival backed by higher-court justices? Once such a challenger becomes a trial judge, can this turn out to be very bad luck — because the winner’s work is liable to be reviewed more harshly by appellate justices angry about that victory?
With nothing to stop top justices from praising particular trial judges, should they have to supply evidence justifying their praise — and address hard proof to the contrary, that makes such praise incomprehensible?
Consider, for example, Judge Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee, who presided over the case anatomised on this site. She just happens to be one of the San Francisco judges forced to defend their seats in preparation for next week’s election.
When Justice Kline referred to her as one of the ‘most able, compassionate, and experienced judges in Northern California’, had he forgotten that she herself has testified to the strenuous difficulty for her, that followed from her complete lack of experience as a civil court trial judge — a reassignment after four decades of specialising exclusively in criminal justice? A change of assignment she chose, because she felt like a change? Even lawyers — more lightly burdened with responsibilities than judges are — rarely straddle the separation between civil and criminal law, which each have their own courts and judiciary; or switch from one to the other.
It is unlikely that Justice Kline knows that in the appellate case on which this site focuses, to which Judge Ming-Mei Lee appointed herself, the court of appeal deliberately blocked official evidence of this judge’s lack of knowhow in the relevant branches of law — contained in an outline of her career published by her own court. The order dated 20 April 2016 shutting this document out of the review of her handling of the case stated:
It would also be surprising for Justice Kline to have described her as compassionate, had he read many reviews of her performance. Aside from the unmediated contributions from lawyers and litigants on her page of the online reviewing forum, The Robing Room, there are the comments about her by attorneys in the clip below —mostly about her record in criminal law courts — gathered and scrupulously balanced by the authors of California Judge Reviews,in which the judge was given a chance to defend herself:
Our Martian onlookers would have to conclude that neutrality is a scarce commodity in this judicial election. Commentators are as likely to be partisan as candidates — and are breaking no laws when they are. Incumbency is no guarantee of either expertise or knowledge in contenders.
Would-be judges in the rest of the world have to stay out of politics, but the U.S. constitution makes judicial officers electable through election campaigns that can be stunningly dull or ferociously contentious. In next month’s state elections in California, four public defenders — lawyers who represent poor people accused of committing crimes, at the taxpayers’ expense — are hoping to win enough votes to replace four San Francisco judges. They are being castigated for doing this.
Here are some questions about a mystifying opinion piece that ran in The San Francisco Examiner on 2 May 2018, headlined ‘Election threatens San Francisco judiciary’. Let’s be perfectly clear. That header is not a reference to any accusation of illegal or antisocial behaviour by the public defenders in the election, but to the fact that there are any contests at all for judicial positions. It is as strange as if an American were criticising fellow-Americans for ignoring the rules of cricket in playing football — even though everyone knows that cricket is not and never was America’s game.
Yet the piece is only one of several op-eds on the same theme in the run-up to the 5 June state election — many of them written by senior judges and politicians.
Examiner readers’ comments beneath the opinion essay of Amy Bacharach — a psychologist specialising in juvenile justice — suggest that Americans are as confused as any outsider by how their legal system works and ensures impartiality. Their remarks underline the urgent, dire need to make court proceedings open, transparent, and debatable by the public.
Until there are answers to the questions in this blog post — arranged as a virtual conversation with Ms. Bacharach — there is no saying how such a revolution is going to happen. The queries are linked to facts on record about the San Francisco case to which this site is dedicated
Amy Bacharach (AB): ‘The process of running against sitting judges defies judicial ethics in the first place … … The U.S. is alone in electing its judges, which puts judges in a role of politician. […] Overwhelming evidence suggests it’s dangerous to start playing politics with the judiciary.’
COTIN: ‘Defies’? ‘Start playing politics’? Surely those cannot be the right words. Until someone rewrites the California constitution so that judges no longer have to run for election every six years to retain their seats, how can these accusations against the four public defenders make sense?
At least one of the four judges being challenged in this election — Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee in seat #9 on the San Francisco bench — campaigned for a senior judicial post herself in 2012. An internal poll, the first contested election in the court’s history, made her the presiding justice.
Nor is this judge above open political affiliation. According to The San Francisco Examiner, she ‘registered as a Democrat after this election began, [and] previously listed no party preference, though she was a registered Republican in the 1990s.’
AB: ‘To be clear, the incumbent judges have no ethical concerns and have done their jobs diligently … … To be sure, the attorneys running for judge in San Francisco would likely make excellent judges, just as those currently serving are excellent judges.’
COTIN: How could anyone know any of that for a fact, when the state judiciary is notoriously so secretive about how it operates?
California’s courtrooms may be open to the public, but there’s no openness when it comes to disciplinary complaints against judges. The Commission on Judicial Performance insists that its oversight work be kept secret and untouchable.
It’s an indefensible stance, but it’s working so far. A state-ordered audit is seeking a look at the commission’s private world, but the judicial agency won a first-round victory — from a judge, no less — in blocking the outside inquiry. [The state Auditor has appealed against that decision.]
Elsewhere, the public defenders galvanising this election have been condemned for trying to unseat ‘experienced’ judges. The incumbents have unquestionably earned that label in some branch of law — but can still lack fundamental experience in others, with deadly consequences for litigants appearing before them.
Six years ago, after a long career as a specialist in criminal law, Judge Cynthia Ming-Mei Lee decided to preside over civil cases. In 2015, the year she turned 66, she herself testified to the difficulty she was having acquiring the necessary expertise, as a clip from a profile in a legal newspaper, The Daily Journal, shows (below).
The knowledge and principles behind civil and criminal law are profoundly different. As one legal reference site explains: ‘The standard of proof is also very different in a criminal case versus a civil case. Crimes must generally be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt”, whereas civil cases are proved by lower standards of proof such as “the preponderance of the evidence” (which essentially means that it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way).’
Nearly a year after Judge Ming-Mei Lee decided the case examined on this site — which required expertise at the junction of family and contract law — it was clear that she lacked any of the necessary background. This can feel like a tree surgeon appearing in scrubs beside your operating table, as the anaesthetic begins to take effect, with consequences as disastrous as you might expect.
AB: … ‘Finally, judicial elections are often so low on the public’s radar that, as one writer noted, they provide the illusion of popular control at the expense of actual accountability.’
COTIN: Everyone who knows anything about California courts agrees that demanding accountability — with transparency — should be the highest priority of California voters who care about their legal system.
Surely the four public defenders in this election are performing an even more valuable public service than in their jobs, by forcing Californians to stop being oblivious and start paying close attention to what is happening in their legal system?
That is an objective perfectly in line with the mission of this site, and trends far across the world.