The constitutional design of our federal government requires an independent judicial branch to serve as a check on the executive and legislative branches.  That constitutional design, embodied in the separation of powers and dependent upon an independent federal judiciary is now being threatened by the automatic budget cuts to the judicial branch mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.  The framers of the Constitution did not contemplate that our three branches of government would operate completely independent of one another.  However, implicit in the constitutional design of the federal government is the obligation to adequately fund the judicial branch to fulfill its constitutional role.  Unfortunately, however, we are nearing the point where additional funding cuts to the judicial branch will hamper its ability to carry out its constitutionally-assigned functions.  

In his 2012 year-end report, Chief Justice John Roberts explained the federal judicial branch stands in a markedly different position from the other branches of government when it comes to mandated funding cuts:

Virtually all of the Judiciary’s core functions are constitutionally and statutorily mandated.  Unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone.  The courts must resolve all criminal and civil cases that fall within their jurisdiction, often under tight time constraints.  A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve.  

The sequester will require the federal judiciary to cut $332 million dollars, or approximately 5% from its operating budget for the current fiscal year.  Complicating the problem is that current fiscal year ends on September 30th, and the federal government was already five months into its fiscal year when the sequester went into effect.  

The Administrative Office of the United States Courts recently imposed emergency cost-cutting measures throughout the federal court system as a result of the sequester.  Those measures include a possible suspension of civil jury trials in September, a 30% cut in funding for court security systems and equipment, as well as a reduction in the hours worked by court security officers.  Additionally, up to 2,000 employees could be either laid off or face mandatory furloughs during the remainder of this fiscal year.  These staffing cuts would be in addition to the loss of 1,800 court staff over the last 18 months.  

The federal judiciary was already severely underfunded before sequestration’s mandated budget cuts went into effect.  For 2012, the federal judicial branch’s fiscal appropriation amounted to two-tenths of one percent of the total federal budget.  That means for every dollar of tax revenue received by the federal government, less than two-tenths of a penny was spent on our judicial branch.  

Under its decentralized management system, each federal court has some discretion over how the required funding cuts will be implemented.  So, for instance, several months ago the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois announced that if the sequester went into effect he would be forced to close the federal courts in Chicago and Rockford one day a week until the end of September.  In the Southern District of New York, the Chief Deputy Clerk recently explained that the District’s Bankruptcy Courts have started to re-use the blank sides of legal briefs as copier paper so that money normally spent on office supplies can be used for wages and salaries of court staff.  This is just the start of the sequester’s impact on the operations of the federal court system.

We may not feel the full squeeze of the budget sequester immediately, but the longer it remains in place, the greater will be its impact on those who seek access to justice.  The size of the automatic cuts mandated by the sequester increases in future years.  Sequestration threatens the protection of fundamental constitutional rights by hampering the ability of federal courts to protect those rights and deliver justice in a timely manner.  Backlogs and delays are now inevitable.  Federal speedy-trial requirements in criminal cases means those matters will be given priority over civil lawsuits.  Citizens seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights and businesses hoping for a timely resolution of complicated disputes will be put on hold.  

Access to justice, an independent federal judiciary, and the separation of powers may seem like abstract concepts. However they are the bulwarks on which our federal court system was built.  In a democracy, justice simply cannot be treated as an expendable luxury in tough economic times.  As one court explained:

[T]he availability of constitutional rights does not vary with the rise and fall of account balances in the Treasury.  Our basic liberties cannot be offered and withdrawn as “budget crunches” come and go, nor may they be made contingent on transitory political judgments regarding the advisability of raising or lowering taxes, or pragmatic or tactical decisions about how to deal with the perennial problem of the national debt.  In short, constitutional rights do not turn on the political mood of the moment, the outcome of cost/benefit analyses or the results of economic or fiscal calculations. Rather, our constitutional rights are fixed and immutable …. The constitutional mandate that federal courts provide civil litigants with a system of civil jury trials is clear.  There is no price tag on the continued existence of that system, or on any other constitutionally-provided right. (Armster v. U.S. Dist. Court for the Cent. Dist. of Cal. 792 F.2d 1423, 1429 9th Cir. 1986.)

Under our democratic system of government, the federal courts stand as the guardian of the rights of all citizens.  Because the sequester threatens the ability of our federal courts to protect the rights of citizens, and to serve as an effective check on the legislative and executive branches of federal government, we are seeing the first signs of a constitutional crisis looming on the horizon.  Critical to the ordered liberty of American democracy is an independent judiciary.  That independence is now challenged by mandatory budget cuts.  If the legislative and executive branches of the federal government refuse to fund the federal judiciary to a level needed to adequately fulfill its constitutional function, then the separation of powers mandated by our Constitution will be fractured.

Steven Puiszis is a member DRI’s Board of Directors and Chair of the DRI Judicial Task Force.  He is a partner in the Chicago office of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP.  He was Editor of DRI’s latest publication on judicial independence, Without Fear or Favor in 2011, available at:
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In an earlier article, we discussed the danger posed to an impartial jury system by the “Googling Juror.” In his article titled “Lawyers’ Use of Internet to Influence Jurors” (New York Law Journal, 6/12/12), Michael Hoenig cautions that “the danger to fair trials posed by Internet-surfing jurors is exacerbated by lawyer ‘advertising’ of their prowess or success on websites, by publishing case-specific information on firm sites or blogs or other Internet outlets, and by skillfully weaving inaccurate, misleading or self-serving messages, and ‘depositing’ them where straying jurors can ‘find’ them.” 

Hoenig concludes that these can be purposeful stratagems or innocent puffing. He points out that despite First Amendment protections, courts can and should restrict prejudicial speech by attorneys. He cautions that lawyers must be diligent in reviewing whether their adversaries (or agents) might be depositing messages about case facts or party litigants, or extraneous, non-admissible information on websites, blogs or other internet locations with the expectation that a straying juror would find the information. Even if the specific facts of a case at trial are not discussed, prospective or sitting jurors can still peruse the attorney’s website, noting biographical information, the firm’s specialties, featured clients and the “war stories,” crusades or victories many firms describe. Hoenig believes that this information likely will be passed to other jurors.

Lawyers do have First Amendment rights to a wide range of speech but they are also subject to reasonable restrictions as officers of the court. Further, lawyers are bound by ethical rules. Rule 3.6 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits an attorney from making an “extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.” Rule 8.4 prohibits “conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” and also states, “a lawyer or law firm shall not: (a) violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce to do so, or do so through the acts of another.”  The article discusses the facts of some of the cases that are emerging in this important area of the law. 

Thus, it is essential that trial counsel perform their own internet investigation concerning both the subject matter of their upcoming trials, and their adversaries' internet materials, to determine whether prejudicial information available to prospective jurors has been posted.

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This Day In History: June 13th

Posted on June 14, 2012 04:03 by Alison Y. Ashe-Card

On this day in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to fill the seat of retiring U.S Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom Clark, saying that this was "the right thing to do, the right time to do it, the right man and the right place."  The Senate confirmed his nomination on August 30th by a vote of 69-11.  Upon his swearing in, Marshall became the 96th justice and the first African-American to sit on the nation’s highest court.  Only one other African-American, Clarence Thomas who succeeded Marshall, has served as one of the Court’s 112 justices.

Marshall, a Baltimore native, graduated from Lincoln University cum laude in 1930 and from Howard Law School in 1939 at the top of his class.  Marshall wanted to apply to his hometown law school, the University Of Maryland School Of Law, but the dean said he would not be accepted because of the school's segregation policy.  He practiced law privately in Baltimore before joining the NAACP as assistant counsel in 1936.  As the NAACP’s chief counsel from 1938 to 1961, Marshall, argued 32 cases before the high tribunal, repeatedly challenging racial segregation, most notably in public education. He won 29 of those cases, including a historic victory in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision when the court, reversing itself, unanimously found that segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

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Recently, Montana’s chief federal judge admitted to forwarding an email from his court email account that included a racist “joke” involving bestiality and President Barack Obama's mother.  Judge Richard Cebull has since issued a formal apology to President Obama and has asked for a formal judicial review of his actions.  Earlier this week, two members of the House Judiciary called for a hearing to examine the judge’s conduct.  Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Steve Cohen of Tennessee told Committee Chairman Lamar Smith in their letter that the committee has a duty to investigate the potential consequences of Judge Richard Cebull’s email.   “At a minimum, forwarding this email illustrates poor judgment and of conduct that was unbecoming of a federal judge,” they wrote.  “More troubling, however, is the possibility that public disclosure of the judge’s conduct may not only undermine the public’s view of his personal credibility and impartiality as a judge, but also the integrity of the ... federal judiciary.”

More than 70 percent of President Obama's confirmed judicial nominees during his first two years were "non-traditional," or nominees who were not white males.  That far exceeds the percentages in the two-term administrations of Bill Clinton (48.1 %) and George W. Bush (32.9 %), according to Sheldon Goldman, author of the authoritative book Picking Federal Judges.  "It is an absolutely remarkable diversity achievement," said Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  Are Judge Cebull’s actions an isolated incident or an indication that we still have a long way to go with regard to diversity efforts in the legal profession?

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Less Jury Trials Impact Many; Florida Study

Posted on February 10, 2012 08:56 by Lori Vella

If you spend some time looking at the statistics, you will see the number of jury trials is swiftly declining.  Many states and organizations have recognized the decline, voicing concerns about the resulting impact on the judicial system, the public and lawyers.  The Florida Bar created a special taskforce, the Special Committee to Study the Decline in Jury Trials (“Committee”), to research and analyze the trend, determine the root cause of the decline and recommend a course of action to the Florida Board of Governors to minimize the impact of this decline.  The Committee issued its final report in December 2011.  The full report is available at by clicking “About the Bar,” followed by “Committees” and then “Special.”

The Committee reviewed, among other published studies, Professor Marc Galanter’s article The Vanishing Trial: An Examination of Trials and Related Matters in Federal and State Courts (1 J. Empirical Legal Studies 459 (2004)).  When you view the statistics, the decline is apparent, and staggering.   For example, in 1962, 11.5% of 50,320 civil federal court dispositions were by trial.  In 2002, there were only 1.8% dispositions by trial, out of 258,876.  In Florida civil cases, 1.6% of total civil cases (155,407) were resolved by jury in 1986.  By 2009, the percentage reduced to .2%, while the number of civil cases increased to 401,463. 

According to the Committee, there are several reasons why jury trials suffered declines.  For civil cases, the rise of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms contributed markedly.  The expense of trials is always another common deterrent.  Another factor is the time it takes to bring a case to trial.  Despite the reduction in number, it was noted that jury trials have become more complex -- longer and more complicated. 

The declines have not been without negative impacts.  With fewer jury trials, fewer people participate in the judicial system as jurors.  Jury service helps educate the public about the justice system.  It is a simple way for the average citizen to play a role in governmental decision making.  If the nearly all disputes are resolved privately, via mediation or arbitration, rather than in an open courtroom, the public’s perception of the justice system will become further skewed.

The decline in jury trials also contributes to reduced funding to the court system, as the decline itself may be viewed as a reason to fund less.  This contributes to a never ending cycle of funding and less independence of the judiciary. 

One of the greatest impacts, however, is the effect on new lawyers.  A lawyer learns best by first-hand practice.  With less opportunity to conduct a trial, lawyers must look to other training which will always be less adequate than the real thing.  The new lawyer ends up feeling uncomfortable and unsure regarding his or her skills.  When the opportunity finally arises, the lawyer may shy away from the experience because he or she simply does not know how to try a case. 

The Committee recommended several measures, including full funding of the courts.  To reduce the impact, the Committee also suggested training and mentoring programs for young lawyers, such as certified legal intern programs or State Attorney/ Public Defender internships.  The Committee further recommended techniques to the bench to more efficiently administer judicial duties, with less cost to litigants, such as streamlining discovery and encouraging the use of expedited jury trials. 

DRI created the Jury Preservation Task Force to examine this federal and state vanishing jury trial phenomenon and report on its findings, which will be published in a future edition of For the Defense.    


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The Push for Judicial Diversity

Posted on August 5, 2011 02:46 by Alison Y. Ashe-Card

During his presidential campaign, President Obama expressed his desire to diversify the federal judiciary which is primarily comprised of white men.  As a result of his administration’s efforts, we have witnessed the first Hispanic sworn in to serve on the United States Supreme Court, the first openly gay man appointed to a federal district court and the first Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese women judicial nominees.  "Having racial diversity, gender diversity, experiential diversity — all of those things we are mindful of and committed to seeking out when we're looking for the best candidates," Kathryn Ruemmier, the new White House counsel, tells National Public Radio (NPR).  Almost half of the 97 candidates who have won confirmation during Obama's presidency are women and approximately a quarter are African-American. 


According to Ed Whelan, a prominent conservative who used to work in the Justice Department during George W. Bush’s administration, "The Obama administration doesn't have a coherent judicial philosophy so it's not surprising that it's falling back on diversity, which I think it sees among other things as appealing to its various political constituencies."  The notion that judges’ decision-making might be affected by their gender and race or ethnicity is incompatible to those who view "judging" as the objective disposition of cases without regard to judges' personal backgrounds, biases, attitudes, and ideologies.  However, research studies underscore the importance of diversity on the bench.  Is advancing judicial diversity a "coherent judicial policy"?  Should the face of justice be a reflection of all of us?



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Categories: Diversity | Judges | Judicial Selection

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Merit Selection Under Attack

Posted on March 10, 2011 08:42 by Steven Puiszis

Many states around the country select judges through a merit selection process.  While the process can vary between states, typically a nominating commission comprised of both attorneys and non-attorneys screen judicial candidates and make a recommendation to the governor, or in some instances the legislature, concerning the judicial candidates.  While no judicial selection system is perfect, merit selection eliminates the need for judicial candidates to initially run for election, which in turn eliminates the need to campaign and fundraise.  At some point merit selection judges may have to for retention, but historically retention elections have drawn less attention and partisanship than contested judicial elections.

Since 1913, the American Judicature Society (“AJS”) has promoted sound merit selection systems throughout the country.  Recently they issued an “action alert” because merit selection systems are under a “sustained and coordinated attack across the country.”  In their action alert, they note that bills are pending in Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Missouri, Kansas, New York, Oklahoma and Tennessee to significantly modify or eliminate merit selection plans entirely.  A copy of the AJS action alert can be found at: ActionAlert.pdf.  The alert includes links to all of the pending bills in each state which challenge the state’s merit selection process. 

Later this month, DRI’s Judicial Task Force will be publishing a report entitled Without Fear of Favor in 2011, A New Decade of Challenges to Judicial Independence and Accountability, which details the various challenges to judicial independence caused by partisan judicial elections,  As the Task Force notes in that report:

Any good trial attorney knows that in a courtroom, perception becomes reality and that maxim holds true for our legal system.  The public’s perception of the fairness of our courts is a direct correlation to its confidence in the American justice system and its respect for our rule of law.  If the public’s perception of the fairness of our courts is ever lost, immeasurable damage will result to our legal system and the rule of law in our country.

Harsh attack ads and major fundraising efforts that have become the norm in partisan judicial elections are harming the public’s perception of the fairness of our judicial system.  The organized defense bar, long a champion of level playing fields and fair court systems must concern itself with these issues.  If you practice in one of the states where merit selection is under attack, there are certain things that you can do.  Make your views known to your legislators.  As the AJS action alert aptly notes, it is of vital importance to keep money, partisan politics, and the influence of special interests out of the judicial selection process.  Also consider writing an op-ed piece or a letter to the editor defending merit selection in your home state.
Members of the defense bar are in an ideal position to protect the system of justice and the independence of the judiciary.  We must begin to do so before the concept of judicial independence is mortally wounded.

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Judicial Selection in Texas

Posted on March 20, 2009 03:40 by David M. Davis

The Texas Legislature is in Session. Every two years the Texas Legislature meets for 5 months. An issue that has been addressed previously and that has become more timely in Texas is Judicial Selection. All Texas judges are elected in partisan elections. As a consequence, the "down ballot" races, such as the judicial races are often decided by hotly contested national or state-wide races. Recently, the judiciary in Houston, Harris County, virtually turned over during the presidential election of 2008 with over 40 Republican District Judges being replaced with 40 new Democrats. Because of this the issue of judicial selection is a hot button issue in Texas.

Texas Association of Defense Counsel member Mike Thompson co-authored this piece with former Texas State Bar President Broadus Spivey. It appeared in the March 16, 2009 issue of the Austin American Statesman.

Spivey & Thompson: The problem with merit selection of judges
Broadus Spivey and Mike Thompson Jr., Local Contributors

Monday, March 16, 2009

For over 150 years Texans have enjoyed a Constitutional right to an elected judiciary. All through that history some have argued that we should move away from the system of partisan judicial elections. Most recently, those voices have included the Austin American Statesman and Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Wallace Jefferson.

The Chief Justice and Statesman appear to argue for a system used in some states of "merit-selection" of judges by the Governor from a list of candidates generated by a committee and then a later non- partisan retention election of that judge. This seems to derive from the Missouri plan. The Statesman believes this would lead to a better judiciary. Supporters also argue that such a reform would remove politics from the system. Finally, they argue that the reform really isn't that big a change because the people retain the right to vote to remove judges in the retention elections. We disagree that partisan judicial elections should be abandoned and answer each of these arguments below.

Retention system doesn't create a "better" Judiciary

Those seeking change to the way Texas picks its judges suggests that the appointment and retention election system of picking judges will create a better judiciary. To fairly consider whether this is true or not, consideration must be given to what makes a good judge. Most would agree that a good judge should be independent. Most would also agree that they should also be accountable to citizens so as not to be arbitrary in decision-making.

In computing whether or not a retention election system like that proposed by the Statesman will give us a more qualified judiciary, we can draw on the experience of many other states as well as the federal system which has never settled for an elected judiciary. There is also a fair amount of research that has been done on strengths of each system. Those resources can and should be compared to the Texas system.

We believe that Texas judges, by and large, are as well qualified as those from states with retention election systems or their federal brethren. Any judiciary in the country would be proud to have judges the quality of former Texas Supreme Court Justices Joe Greenhill, Bob Calvert or Craig Enoch and present judges like the Chief Justice. All of these distinguished judges were elected or reelected to the Supreme Court in contested partisan elections.

As noted, Social Science Professors have studied the lessons of merit selection in other states. A committee studying the issue quoted Professor's Shuman & Champagne summary of the social science investigation on the subject as teaching "the quality of judges in a merit-selection system are no better than those selected by voters ... ".p. 4 "The Case for Partisan Judicial Elections," Judicial Selection White Papers, Professor Michael Debow http://www.fed Federalist Society, 2003 visited Feb. 16, 2009. The authors concluded: "Much research has been conducted, looking for evidence that Missouri plan judges are systematically better qualified that elected judges. No evidence of this sort has been found". p. 4.

The next question to answer to decide whether this reform will lead to a better judiciary is whether judges in merit selection states are more independent than the Texas judiciary. In the classic study of the Missouri Plan, The Politics of Bench & Bar the authors found—the competing plaintiff and defendant bar were about equally successful in obtaining seats for judges they supported for appointment. Thus, the result was a relatively well -balanced "two-party" competition. However, that competition took place in a subterranean process beyond popular control. Thus, in reality the competition continued just without the people having a meaningful say.

Politics remains in the retention system just as in system of partisan elections.

The reformers at the Statesman suggest that with retention elections, the picking of judges will be less political. Yet, as pointed out above, those who have studied the system in such states have come to a far different conclusion. The interest groups who have a significant stake in the judiciary will continue to work to promote their interests no matter what formula is used to pick judges. Again, the research shows that those with the greatest interest (i.e. The bar) have a way to make themselves felt regardless of method employed. Nor has the federal appointed system demonstrated an absence of politics in the selection of judges.

In its editorial, the Statesman argues that an imminent ruling from the US Supreme Court in the Caperton v. Massey case will change the calculus of judicial elections. While Caperton is an important case regarding recusal of judges, the Supreme Court has previously considered and found that independent political speech like that used in the West Virginia judicial elections at issue in Caperton do not pose a threat of corruption or the appearance of corruption. Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U. S. 230 (2006); Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976).

The people don't retain any meaningful right to vote in the merit selection plan.

In the merit selection of judges plan, the people have no real right to vote. What they are left with is an uncontested retention election years after an appointment by the Governor. Social science studies researching the issue have shown that less than one percent of all judges standing for retention elections have been removed. This is significantly smaller than in partisan elective systems. Further, while turnout is low in typical judicial elections it is even lower in retention elections. With no live opponent, retention elections do not generate the publicity that brings voters to the polls. As note earlier, politics isn't removed from the merit selection process thus at the end of the day only the right of people to participate is.

Judicial partisan judicial elections have substantial advantages over the alternatives. Not least of which is that they provide an additional, significant measure of self-government to voters. Or as Professors' Chris W. Bonneau and Melinda Gann Hall propose in their new book In Defense of Judicial Elections, judicial elections are efficacious mechanisms that enhance the quality of democracy and create a link between citizens and the judiciary. Indeed, this link between self -government and judicial selection may be most important to confirm that Judges are not apart and superior to citizens they serve.

Thomas Jefferson considered the issue and wrote:

"The exemption of the judges from {election} is quite dangerous enough. I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it [power] from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Thomas Jefferson, Writings, Vol. XV, p. 278. We believe Thomas Jefferson was right and the people's right to meaningfully participate in electing their judges should be preserved.

Broadus Spivey is an Austin attorney and former president of the state bar. Mike Thompson Jr. is an Austin attorney. He is a member of the Federalist Society, the Texas Association of Defense Counsel and Sam's Club.

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