Gavel Grab

Harassment and Threats Against Judges Rising

The United States Marshals Service has released data showing a steady increase in threats, harassment and other inappropriate communications with judges. According to the National Law Journal, in just five years the number has risen 89 percent.

Federal law sanctions threats against judges, along with the intentional release of personal information with the intent to threaten, intimidate, or incite a violent crime against a judge.

In addition to monitoring outright threats, the Marshals Service tracks inappropriate communications that “harass, show an unusual direction of interest, or make unsettling overtures of an improper nature directed to a protectee.” In a little over 1 percent of the cases, the threat or inappropriate communications was posted on a website or blog.

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The American Academy of Arts and Sciences on Judicial Independence

.Yesterday, I was honored to participate in a program on judicial independence hosted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the NYU Law School.  The program—the Academy’s first examining these issues—attracted 200-300 people, including many interested students.  Former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse moderated.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered opening remarks, reprising her concerns about growing pressure on judicial elections.  “It’s harder for a judge to be neutral if they think about the popularity of their opinions and who has donated to them,” she said.  “We can’t afford to have a justice system that’s perceived as corrupt, biased or unethical.”  She closed with a warning:  “Statutes and constitutions don’t protect judicial independence.  People do.”

Yale Law Professor Judith Resnik reviewed the evolution of the concept of strong and independent courts.  Her slide show began with an image of flaying of a corrupt judge in Gerard David’s 1498 diptych The Justice of Cambyses (pictured above) and similar cultural representations of judging as a high-risk occupation.  She showed how the notion of independent courts became enshrined in America’s founding documents, and how courthouse architecture can reinforce the cultural strength of the courts.

My own presentation touched on first reports of what happened in this year’s judicial elections: Supreme Court justices raising what probably will exceed $30 million, and $17 million or more in TV ads.  I touched on voter approval for merit selection in four different county referenda.  I also discussed how party-line voting ousted 22 experienced GOP judges in Texas this year, and 19 more two years ago.  As usual, when I showed some of the ads that ran this year, there were a lot of gasps in the audience

Georgetown Professor Viet Dinh discussed criticism of the courts, and the complicated task of distinguishing between fair critiques and inappropriate attacks.  “Illegitimate criticism is the majority of criticism we see today,” he said.  Valid criticism, he added, includes situations where a judge’s decision “steps so far out of bounds that he has failed the judicial oath,” perhaps “in response to external pressures.”  He lamented that “elites know how to criticize judges in ways that are effective in forcing them to change their behavior.”

The Academy , founded by John Adams, held the program to launch a new issue of it’s journal, Daedelus, that is devoted to judicial independence issues.  It includes contributions by the panelists and many other authors.  The issue was edited by Meryl Chertoff, Executive Director of the Sandra Day O’Connor Center on the State of the Judiciary.

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You Tube bullying? Judge comes under 21st century fire in privacy case

Judge Louis Stanton, from the Southern District of New York, has come under fire from numerous You Tube users.   These attacks are in the form of posted videos that feature angry rants, expletives and dire insinuations.

The attacks follow Judge Stanton’s decision in a copyright case to instruct Google to turn over its records of who watched particular You Tube videos to Viacom.  While there are obviously serious questions over which reasonable minds can differ related to privacy rights and the internet, there is never an excuse for intimidating or threatening any member of the judiciary.

You can read more coverage on the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog here, or Reuters here.

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More From California

As  mentioned in this blog yesterday, California’s Commission for Impartial Courts had a meeting this week discussing ways to protect California’s judiciary from outside interests. The CIC took testimony from Thomas J. Moyer, Chief Justice of Ohio’s Supreme Court and a board member for Justice at Stake.

Today, a San Francisco Chronicle article focused on two former governors who support the commission, Pete Wilson (Republican) and Gray Davis (Democrat). The interesting nugget is that both at different times had attacked the judiciary for not following their political ideology.

It is good to see former Governors Davis and Wilson stepping in to defend fair and impartial courts in California.

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The Annenberg Political Fact Check – twice chosen by Time Magazine as one of “25 sites we can’t live without” – is launching a program of scrutinizing barbs hurled in 2008 judicial elections.  In their words: “Our first report deals with falsehoods, misleading statements and unproven innuendo about corruption, rape and murder in a Wisconsin race in which an incumbent justice, appointed by a Democratic governor, has been challenged by a lower-court judge who was appointed by a Republican. An independent watchdog group already has criticized one outside group and the challenger’s campaign for making misleading claims. The ads have drawn fire from others, too, including the incumbent justice who might benefit from one of them.”

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2/26/08: A Look at Texas Including an Analysis on Hair

Judges Running Scared?– Fired Up! Missouri
Missouri Judges are possibly being intimidated by groups in this election year according to this post from Missouri.

Parsing SCOTUS Judicial Activism– Letters in Bottles
An interesting look at the Judges on the Supreme Court and their Activism on the bench.

Candidate overview: Supreme Court primaries– Off the Kuff
Charles Kuff takes a look at the Supreme Court Primaries in Texas and looks at the issues in the election.

Judicial race gets hairy– Houston Politics
In a Houston Judicial race, facial hair has become a big topic in the race. Yes, I said and meant hair.

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New Scholarship–Judges Firing Judges


When Congressional attacks on federal judges began surging a few years ago, there was a brief attempt to rewrite history and suggest that legislative impeachment and removal could be commonplace tools to remove judges over decisions.  In fact, the opposite is true:  as Professor Charles Geyh puts it in his 2006 When Courts and Congress Collide, Congress “has concluded that there are constraints on its authority to characterize various offenses as impeachable….In this day and age, no judge can realistically fear impeachment or removal on account of her decisions.”

But what about the judiciary?  Can courts clear their own bench? Professors Sai Prakash and Steve Smith recently argued that they could, that Congress has the power to authorize courts to remove judges.  Now, courtesy of the Legal History Blog, we see that Northwestern Professor  James E. Pfander argues no, saying that English common law traditions for removing judges through judicial proceedings were not embraced by the Consitution’s framers.

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1/24/08 – A Special Texas Edition of the Daily Media Monitoring, Plus Bonus Ethics News From Maine and a Defense of Impeachment in Iowa

AP NewsBreak: High court justice use campaign funds questioned – The Associated Press
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht joins Justices Paul Green and David Medina in defending campaign spending on questionable travel expenses.

As the Texas Supreme Court turns – The Star-Telegram
A play-by-play editorial of the ongoing ethics saga unfolding in the Texas Supreme Court.

Looks matter: Ethics issues involving Texas justices have put a cloud over top judicial panels. – The Houston Chronicle
With the ongoing ethics concerns in the Texas judiciary, voters should pay special attention to judicial elections and be sure to educate themselves before voting in the primaries.

Judge’s nomination questioned – The Associated Press
Gov. John Baldacci comes under fire after he appointed Assistant Attorney General Susan Sparaco to serve as District Court Judge. Sparaco is the domestic partner of Gov. Baldacci’s chief of staff.

Let public be heard in same-sex marriage debate – The Des Moines Register
Mike Manno, a West Des Moines attorney, responds to two earlier Register article and defends the argument that the voters should ultimately decide the fate of same-sex marriage and that discussion of judicial impeachment should be left on the table for the legislators.

Click here for more news on fair and impartial courts issues from the Brennan Center for Justice E-lerts.

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1/23/08 – GOP Primary Means Open Season on Judiciary, Special Interests in IL, WV SC Judge Investigates His Collegue, IA Gov. Lights a Fire Under the SC, Arson Charges Mysteriously Dropped for TX SC Justce

Fred Thompson Blasts Mike Huckabee on Abortion, Constitution Comments – Life News
Fred Thompson accused Mike Huckabee of using “code words for judicial activism”, to which Huckabee replied by stating he opposes liberal judicial activism and abhors the idea of unelected judges making decisions on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. And just so he didn’t feel left out, Mitt Romney made a statement that he, too believes that “unelected judges should not be the final arbiters on these important decisions which define who we are as a people.”

Lawyer’s deep pockets in Ill. judicial race raise hackles – The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform weighs in on the effects of special interest fundraising in judicial elections.

Justice Seeks Probe in Massey Case – The Associated Press
Justice Larry Starcher sent a memo to the West Virginia Supreme Court administrator regarding serious ethical concerns over Chief Justice Maynard’s relationship with the chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co.

Iowa Gov. Tells High Court To Speed Gay Marriage Ruling – 365 Gay
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver requests that the state Supreme Court expedite its ruling on same-sex marriage and announces that legislative action will be taken if the courts rule in favor of same-sex marriage.

Texas grand jurors outraged by politics of justice – The LA Times
The Texas jury that convicted Republican Justice David Medina last week of arson is speaking out now that District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, also a Republican, dropped all charges against Medina.

Click here for more news on fair and impartial courts issues from the Brennan Center for Justice E-lerts.

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1/18/08 – Judge Feels Duped in CIA Videotape Case, TX SC Justice Burned his Own House Down, Iowa Editorial Gets it Right, Breaking News: SC is Divided

Judge suspects CIA duped court in destroying tapes – Reuters
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, while hearing arguments in the CIA video tape destruction case, said he found it “hard to believe” the tapes did not produce any notes or markers that could have been turned over to the court.

Texas Supreme Court Justice indicted in arson of his Houston home – The Associated Press
Texas Supreme Court Justice David Medina and his wife have been charged in an arson fire that destroyed their home in the Houston suburb of Spring last summer, their attorney said.

Judges need independence to protect everyone’s rights – The Des Moines Register Editorial Board
The Des Moines Register argues that judges must be allowed to make rulings based on the Constitution and not be pressured by the tyranny of the majority.

High Court divide threatens to deepen – USA Today
With a caseload stocked with controversial and heated cases, the U.S. Supreme Court is showing some signs that the divisions made apparent last year may deepen during the 2007-2008 session.

Click here for more news on fair and impartial courts issues from the Brennan Center for Justice E-lerts.

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