The Mindset of Appellate Judges

Here is a well-stated look into the minds of appellate judges, from a 2-year old column by Howard Bashman:

One essential trait that an appellate lawyer must possess is the ability to think about legal issues from the perspective of judges who serve on appellate courts. Appellate courts are not only responsible for trying to reach the correct result in the cases on appeal, but their rulings often create precedents that will govern other cases that don’t even exist yet. Thus, an appellate lawyer must be cognizant not only of how existing precedent will affect an appellate court’s view of a newly filed appeal, but also about how the precedent created in the course of deciding the new case will affect the future direction of the law.  

Not every appeal has such an issue.  If all appeals did, you wouldn’t see so few decisions published.  But this is a question that must be part of every case evaluation and, if such an issue is present, the question of “what if” must be anticipated and answered before it is asked.

Grisham Pens “The Appeal”

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I can’t stomach most of the John Grisham I’ve read. Maybe it’s because The Firm was the first book of his that I read, and I found it (and the movie) excellent, that the others I tried seemed so bad. I thought A Time to Kill was horribly written, The Pelican Brief was inane, and I lost interest in The Client around ten or twenty pages in. After that, I gave up on Grisham, so I’ll concede there’s a possibility I’ve missed some good novels since then.

But the title of his latest novel caught my eye. The premise of The Appeal, based on my reading of Random House’s web page for the book, is that the owner of a chemical company appealing from a huge verdict against it in a “cancer cluster” case decides to finance its own candidate for election to the Mississippi Supreme Court. As publisher Random House describes:

Through an intricate web of conspiracy and deceit, [the chemical company owner’s] political operatives recruit a young, unsuspecting candidate. They finance him, manipulate him, market him, and mold him into a potential Supreme Court justice. Their Supreme Court justice.

Thanks to How Appealing, who also provides a link to a review of the book.

UPDATE (1/29/08): Here’s a post at Law Blog discussing real life corruption and the intersection of judicial campaign contributions and judicial decision-making: Tulane Law Prof Examines Whether Justices are for Sale.

UPDATE (1/30/08):  Prawfsblawg writes up Adam Liptak’s coverage of the Tulane Professor’s article.

Ninth Circuit Judicial Complaint Disposition Orders Published Online

Via NLJ’s L.A. Legal Pad comes news that, according to this press release from the Ninth Circuit, “disposition of judicial misconduct and disability complaints against federal judges sitting in the Ninth Circuit will be publicly available via the Internet” starting this month.  Three orders are already up.

The main page includes links to the governing rules,  a page listing the orders, and a downloadable complaint form.

California’s 90-Day Rule

The California Constitution (Article VI, sec. 19) prohibits a judge from drawing pay “while any cause before the judge remains pending and undetermined for 90 days after it has been submitted for decision.” A one-page “barrister’s tips” column by Ben Shatz at page 11 of this month’s Los Angeles Lawyer (in PDF format here) gives some nifty background on how this rule is enforced and how it can affect proceedings, including decisions to vacate submission and the scheduling of oral argument.

A Technology-Induced Rush to Dismiss?

The Ninth Circuit has some unkind words for the district judge in Calderon v. IBEW Local 47, case no. 05-56937 (November 13, 2007). The district court dismissed the case for lack of prosecution because plaintiff’s counsel did not show up at a hearing on an order to show cause re dismissal for failure to serve one of the defendants.

Problem: the district court only gave notice of the OSC re dismissal via e-mail. Since plaintiff’s counsel did not consent to electronic notice (Fed. R. Civ. P. 5(b)(2)(D)) and did not regularly check his e-mail (and, given his lack of consent to electronic notice, had no obligation to do so), he missed the hearing. Putting aside the issue of whether a dismissal sanction is an abuse of discretion when it is imposed for missing a single hearing — an issue raised very briefly by the court — the notice was ineffective. Notwithstanding the attorney’s reasonable excuse for missing the hearing, the trial court denied plaintiff’s motion to vacate the dismissal, and did so without a hearing.

This easily meets the standard for “abuse of discretion,” says the Ninth. Indeed, the court takes the unusual step of apologizing to the parties. In the same sentence, it admonishes the district judge to “exercise more care and patience in the future.”

The district judge in question is Manuel Real of the Central District of California. Two prominent bloggers used the Calderon opinion to opine on Judge Real; both California Appellate Report and Decision of the Day do so in language that suggests they don’t plan to appear before Judge Real any time soon. More of Judge Real’s colorful history is memorialized in this judicial profile.

Anyway, on to the point reflected in the title of this post.

I wonder if Judge Real wasn’t made impatient because of the electronic notice. With electronic this and electronic that, we (as a society) expect everything to happen now.

By the time I was admitted to the bar in 1992, faxes were common. Car phones were widespread (though handheld cell phones were not), though somewhat pricey. My first firm (more than 1200 lawyers strong at the time) was still using Wang word processing in its LA office and e-mail had not yet been implemented firm-wide, if I recall correctly. Portable computers were heavy and hugely expensive. So things have accelerated greatly in the 15 short years since I became a lawyer.

I recall a partner at one of my BigLaw firms reminiscing in the mid-90’s about the “good old days” before fax machines. She thought the practice of law was much more civil before faxes. Fax machines, in her mind, were a leading cause of threatening letters sent by opposing counsel on Friday afternoons demanding detailed responses by Monday morning . . . or sooner. The same partner usually made a point of being totally incommunicado when on vacation.

My favorite anecdote regarding the impatience that technology breeds came from an an associate at Baker & McKenzie (where I spent my 2L summer in 1991), who once saw two attorneys in Los Angeles pacing back and forth impatiently outside the firm’s mailroom, cursing under their breath. When he asked why, they responded that they were faxing a contract and “it’s taking three minutes per page for this contract to get to Tokyo!”

While properly leveraging technology can make your life easier, I have some sympathy for (and sometimes count myself among) those who believe that, in many respects, technology just makes us work harder!

Updates to Code of Judicial Ethics

This press release from the Judicial Council of California announces that the Supreme Court has approved several amendments to the Code of Judicial Ethics.  The press release recounts the areas affected before going into significant detail on the changes:

The issues covered by the amendments include handling cases with self-represented litigants, judicial disclosure, character reference letters, self-reporting by judges after being charged with or convicted of certain crimes, and misusing the prestige of the office by commissioners or referees.

The updated code is available as a downloadable PDF. Click here for the PDF.  The changes do not take effect until January 1, 2008.

Judicial Performance Commission Records Not Discoverable

In Commission on Judicial Performance v. Superior Court, case no. B201251 (2d Dist. Oct. 29, 2007), the court of appeal holds that records of the Commission on Judicial Performance are not discoverable.  Its holding appears absolute, regardless of circumstances.

Felony defendant Davidson had his suppression motion denied by Judge Schwartz. Davidson filed a complaint against Judge Schwartz with the Commission, then was convicted after his case was transferred to another judge. In connection with his motion for a new trial, he filed a Pitchess motion (Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531) for records from the Commission concerning Judge Schwartz. The trial court ordered the records produced for in camera review.

The court of appeal grants the writ petition, issuing a writ compelling the trial court to vacate its order and to enter a new order denying Davidson’s Pitchess motion and granting the Commission’s motion to quash the subpoena. The Commission clearly qualifies for the official records privilege (Evid. Code § 1040); the court is unaware of any previous decision under Pitchess allowing such discovery; allowing discovery would “encourage mischief without a concomitant benefit to a criminal defendant”; the discovery would allow Davidson to indirectly question Judge Schwartz regarding the denial of his suppression motion, something he cannot do directly, and; other states with similar commissions have denied similar discovery.

All well and good, but the court also held that the trial court’s order for in camera review is invalid because the non-discoverability of the records would make such review a “wasted effort” and, “more to the point,” the judge has “no more right to see the Commission’s records than does any other member of the public.” It’s hard to square either rationale with Evidence Code section 915, subdivision (b):

When a court is ruling on a claim of privilege under Article 9 (commencing with Section 1040) of Chapter 4 (official information and identity of informer) . . . and is unable to do so without requiring disclosure of the information claimed to be privileged, the court may require the person from whom disclosure is sought or the person authorized to claim the privilege, or both, to disclose the information in chambers out of the presence and hearing of all persons except the person authorized to claim the privilege and any other persons as the person authorized to claim the privilege is willing to have present. If the judge determines that the information is privileged, neither the judge nor any other person may ever disclose, without the consent of a person authorized to permit disclosure, what was disclosed in the course of the proceedings in chambers.

The only way to read the decision in light of Evidence Code section 915 is that it forecloses any discovery of Commission records ever.