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Archive for the ‘On Judges’ Category

https://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/h/hyperlux/preview/fldr_2005_05_29/file000516740961.jpgAfter reading about the death of 42-year old prominent, “outspoken” Las Vegas lawyer Jacob Hafter this past week, I thought again of how tough and even unforgiving the legal establishment can be. According to news reports, the Clark County, Nevada coroner’s office ruled Hafter’s death a suicide. See “Suspended Las Vegas lawyer Jacob Hafter dies at age 42.”

Last November, the Nevada Supreme Court handed down a six-month suspension order of Hafter “partly for Facebook comments accusing a judge of religious bias.” For more details concerning his disciplinary case see “Nevada Supreme Court suspends Las Vegas attorney Jacob Hafter.”

Hafter’s sudden unexpected and tragic death has roiled members of the Las Vegas legal community, some going as far as faulting the Nevada Bar for allegedly doing little to help the lawyers it disciplines.

Ironically, in May 2017 the Nevada Supreme Court approved a state bar petition mandating an additional annual hour of continuing legal education in substance abuse, addictive disorders and/or mental health. Also see “Overwrought and over exaggerated but no matter. Over prescribed CLE is always the regulators’ fix.”

Adding to the disquietude caused by Hafter’s death was unrelated news tonight about how Broward County, Florida Circuit Court Judge Merrillee Ehrlich “brutally berate a woman in a wheelchair. The woman died. The judge has quit.” The video is unpleasant to watch, underscoring again how hard the system can be, especially on non-lawyers, too. The Miami Herald story can be found here.

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I have to confess. I had no idea that for at least 20 years judges in some U.S. criminal courts have quite literally been shocking defendants with 50,000 volts of electricity when the judge deems the defendant to be out of line. It happens incredibly enough in jurisdictions where the criminally accused can be required to wear battery operated remote-controlled stun cuffs or shock belts to court. At the command of the judge, a bailiff or law enforcement officer presses the stun button.

Unimaginably, this is the stuff of the totalitarian state — an exclamation point putting the banana in banana republic.

It takes but a few online clicks to quickly turn up instances where it’s happened — no aberration for those paying attention. A couple of years ago there was the one caught on tape in Maryland. In that case, though, the judge was disciplined and removed from the bench. See Ex-judge who ordered man to be hit with stun gun pays fine

 

Embracing “savage measures.”

Ironically, it was also 20 years ago that I first read and saved a quote by Cesare Beccaria. He was an 18th century economist, philosopher, and criminologist whose words immediately came to mind when I read last week about another judicially administered electric shock in the courtroom. This time the news concerned the Texas Eighth Court of Appeals throwing out the conviction of Terry Lee Morris on the grounds that the electric shocks ordered by Tarrant County District Judge George Gallagher and Morris’s subsequent courtroom removal had violated his constitutional rights. Beccaria declared, “Societies seeking to moderate human conduct should not embrace savage measures.”

Hat tip to my buddy at The Legal Watchdog for emailing me about the Morris case. Also see ‘Barbarism’: Texas judge ordered electric shocks to silence man on trial. Conviction thrown out and Court Throws Out Conviction Of Texas Man Who Was Given Electrical Shocks By A Judge For Failing To “Follow The Rules”

Not having had any experience in the criminal courts, I had no idea some of the black-robed had been given this much power to physically punish the not yet convicted.

Where permitted, it’s left to the subjective discretion of the judge who decides if and when a defendant is being mouthy, difficult or otherwise ‘unmanageable.’ The justification for administering electrical shocks is “security.” But from the reports I’ve read too often the so-called threat to courtroom security falls more on the order of a garrulous defendant who has managed to annoy the judge.

Fortunately, not all jurisdictions allow the use of stun cuffs and shock belts in court. Indeed, four years after the first use of an electric security belt in Los Angeles County, in 2002 the California Supreme Court effectively banned their use during criminal trials. They were likewise barred in Indiana — but not so Texas.

And here I was previously exercised about judges with a penchant for shackling defense lawyers. That sanction pales by comparison to shock treatment. Just the same, let’s hope there’s never a time when handcuffing defense lawyers becomes an insufficient imposition and that instead further discretion is given to hit recalcitrant counsel with 50,000 volts of proper comportment.

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A “membership requirements” survey emailed to the state’s lawyers last week by the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court features an unprecedented argument. Acknowledging that “some lawyers argue there should be an exception” to mandatory membership in the State Bar of Arizona, the introduction to the survey asserts “One argument is that some lawyers hold a ‘firm, fixed and sincere ethical, religious or moral objection’ to being required to be a member of the State Bar and should be able to opt out as a non-member attorney (NMA).”¹

As proposed, lawyers opting out of joining the Bar and funding its full freight of regulatory and non-regulatory trade association services would be required to personally swear or affirm in writing to “a firm, fixed, and sincere ethical, religious or moral objection” to Bar membership.

It’s not clear who would determine the adequacy of the affidavits or how often affiants would have to file their objections. California teachers, for example, must annually file an opt-out request to get a 30% refund of their union dues.

More significantly, objectors would be forced to tell their clients of their new status as NMAs. This assuredly implicates unconstitutional compelled speech. It also serves no legitimate government function. And without pinpointing any legitimate purpose, objectors would be issued new Bar cards with brand new bar numbers to identify them as attorneys licensed to practice — but NMAs. Talk about chilling the First Amendment right not to associate.

A lawyer second class.

As a newly created separate and unequal class of lawyers, NMAs would be excluded from voting in Bar elections or from running for its governing board. However, as others have pointed out, disenfranchising NMAs is only appropriate if the State Bar has no formal role in attorney discipline and governance. But that’s not the case here. The Court-empowered Bar will continue holding regulatory and disciplinary sway over both members and non members.

Categorized as ineligible for Bar discretionary services, including specialty section membership, NMAs would also be charged higher registration fees for Bar continuing legal education programs.

In exchange for giving up the foregoing, it’s estimated NMAs would save a modest $70 to $100 off the current $505 dues. Already one of the highest cost to practice bars in the U.S., Arizona’s dues go up to $520 a year from now.

It’s fair to wonder how this low savings estimate was calculated and whether it was derived from self-interested Bar number-crunchers. By contrast, when in 2013 the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered the Nebraska Bar to charge members only for lawyer regulation — licensing fees went down by two-thirds.

The lawyer as conscientious objector.

Forget for the moment that “an opt-out system places the burden on the wrong party and leads to the unjust and needless encroachment upon First Amendment rights.” Or that giving lawyers only one choice: making a Hacksaw Ridge style conscientious objection to get out of membership is not only absurd but unnecessary. Trade association services should be voluntary to begin with. And when did we sign up for the infantry?

As I have written here before, the Bar always conflates lawyer professionalism, expertise and qualifications with mandatory membership — because it serves their self-interest. Lawyers are admitted and authorized to practice by the state supreme court not because of Bar membership.

Yes or no.

After describing how the proposal would be implemented, the survey asks a yes or no question, “Given this information, do you believe the Arizona Supreme Court should provide a non-member attorney option to attorneys licensed to practice in Arizona?”

And then asks, “If the AZ Supreme Court were to provide a non-member attorney option as described above, would you:

___ Remain a full member of the State Bar

___ Choose to opt out”

Below are the parameters that frame these survey questions. But inasmuch as they amount to poison pills, it’s clear the intent is to not to delineate but to dissuade respondents from opting out.

The State Bar, which gave input on the survey, stands to profit should the results inure to its benefit. However, asking the Bar for input on whether its captive members should opt out is like asking the cat whether to release the mouse.

So notwithstanding the survey’s one-sided argument and suspect constitutionality, the Bar will just the same crow a result that cowed its members from opting out. How many lawyers will find amenable a requirement to out themselves to clients like modern-day Hester Prynnes?

But if there’s ever been a better case for a voluntary bar than the one presented by this unworkable scheme — I can’t think of one.

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Lawyers who choose the NMA option:

“Would be required to file an affidavit with the State Bar indicating they favor a firm, fixed and sincere ethical, religious or moral objection to being required to be a member of the State Bar.

▪ “Would be required to notify your clients that you are no longer a member of the State Bar, but are licensed to practice in Arizona.

▪”Would have to personally file the affidavit. The head of a firm or office could not opt out for all attorneys at the firm or office.

▪ “Would receive a separate law license number and their current bar number would be deactivated.

▪ “Would not be able to join a State Bar section.

▪ “Would be charged a higher non-member registration fee if the NMA wants to attend a State Bar sponsored CLE program.

▪ “Could not vote in State Bar elections, nor could they run for the Board of Governors.

▪ “Would not be eligible for State Bar discretionary services, e.g., the Arizona Attorney, e-Legal newsletters, Law Office Management assistance, use of FastCase, State Bar legal publications.

▪ “Would pay a mandatory licensing fee but would not pay for State Bar non-regulatory services. The Court estimates it would be a 14% to 20% reduction in the fee paid for only being licensed to practice. For a regular active Bar membership, the reduction would be $70 to $100.”

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¹Never having heard of any lawyer making such a peculiar argument, what first occurred to me on seeing the proposed NMA acronym was the Compton rap group N.W.A.

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What happens in Vegas never did stay in Vegas contrary to that now 15-year old marketing slogan I got sick of 15 years ago. The succeeding, “What happens here, stays here” was scarcely an improvement.

Take, for example, what happens in a Vegas courtroom. To the uninitiated, you might think from news reports the past couple of years that there’s a perverse penchant for handcuffing lawyers in Clark County, Nevada. That kind of news doesn’t stay in Vegas.

In 2016, Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Conrad Hafen ordered his bailiff to handcuff Clark County Deputy Public Defender Zohra Bakhtary while she was arguing for leniency for her client. Showing Bakhtary no leniency, Judge Hafen ordered his bailiff to place the handcuffed defense lawyer in a chair next to the jury box.

The justice of the peace was subsequently disciplined by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline for his conduct. He consented to a public censure and agreement not to seek, accept or serve in any judicial or adjudicative position or capacity in the future in any jurisdiction in the State of Nevada.

Then last month Clark County Family Court Judge William Potter was suspended for two months without pay for several violations of the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct arising out of ordering the handcuffing of lawyer Michancy Moonblossom Cramer and threatening to handcuff another lawyer, Ernest Buche, in his courtroom.

The 15-page decision of the Judicial Discipline Commission is worth reading. Besides the two month unpaid suspension, Judge Potter is required to apologize in writing to both lawyers; perform 10 hours of community service; pay a $5,000 fine to an antibullying group; and because the commission panel questioned Judge Potter’s “mental stability and capacity to control his anger,” he is required to submit to a psychiatric exam. As noted in the decision, “The most troubling aspect of the hearing occurred when (Potter’s) temper exploded during the commission hearing itself, thus allowing the commission to witness first-hand the very same behavior that the judge exhibited during the Cramer incident.” 

And finally, there’s this, which thankfully doesn’t involve more lawyer handcuffing by judges. Instead, it’s Clark County District Court Judge Susan Johnson who told several felons to follow through on their probation so they’d be able to vote for Donald Trump in the next presidential election. The judge’s political recommendation made national news — yet again undermining “What happens here, stays here.”

And no matter that she subsequently claimed her comments were meant as jokes. See Las Vegas judge who told felons if they meet probation requirements they can vote for Trump in 2020 says she wanted to ‘invoke some humor'”

I’ll be surprised if a complaint isn’t filed with Nevada’s Judicial Discipline Commission against Judge Johnson for possibly violating the code of conduct’s prohibitions against politicking from the bench. Most likely, though, if a complaint is lodged, it won’t be from a lawyer.

With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., among other viable reasons, including potential prejudice to clients, detached reflection isn’t in great demand while handcuffed.

Lawyers are among the least likely to file complaints against judges. See Commission’s 2016-2017 Biennial Report.

As for the humor of it, The Nevada Independent reported December 1st that Judge Johnson has made her vote for Donald Trump ‘joke’ three times. The schtick apparently did not get stale after the first or second time.

As a matter of fact, the last documented instance came in August when the jurist told defendant Monique Fresquez, “So if you do everything I tell you to do, you will have your civil rights restored in about three years. You’ll be able to vote for Mr. Trump, I’m sure he could use your vote.”

So far there are no reports of any defendants ‘humorously’ receiving MAGA caps.

See Judge again tells felon to behave because Trump “could use your vote”

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Photo Credits: Welcome to fabulous Las Vegas, by Håkan Dahlström at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; No Justice for Toons, by JD Hancock at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; female in handcuffs, by Jobs For Felons Hub, at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; keep_in, by Robin Davies at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; Donald Trump, by Donkey Hotey, at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.

 

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On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that government, in this instance, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) may not refuse to register potentially offensive names under a law against registering trademarks likely to disparage people or groups.

The case, Matal v. Tam, strengthens the case against state bar associations seeking to further trample lawyer First Amendment rights via ABA Model Rule 8.4(g). For more about the ABA’s misguided decision “to discipline lawyers who engage in politically incorrect speech,” see “The ABA’s Control Over What Lawyers Say Around the Water Cooler.”

The Nevada Bar, for one, has petitioned its state supreme court to adopt a new lawyer speech code to punish Nevada attorneys for what newly weaponized lawyer disciplinary authorities subjectively deem “derogatory,” “demeaning,” or “harmful” speech“related to the practice of law.” Matal v. Tam renders the viewpoint discrimination enshrined by such a proposed rule presumptively unconstitutional.

Nonetheless, how much ultimate weight state supreme courts give to Matal v. Tam on such matters will depend on the jurists’ ability to temper the agenda-driven viewpoint of lawyers as sui generis ‘special snowflakes.’ Under this rubric, lawyers are expected to unreservedly pay for their ‘privilege’ with constraints on their Constitutional rights not visited upon any other profession.

Whether as agents of the state, i.e., ‘officers of the court,’ or as “public citizens” as the ABA Report describes them, lawyers are expected to tolerate the continued erosion of their rights, especially with respect to the First Amendment. See here, here, here and here and additionally, The Intersection of Free Speech and the Legal Profession; Constraints on Lawyers’ First Amendment Rights. It’s way past time for lawyers to say “Enough!”

Matal v. Tam.

In 2011, Simon Tam, the founding member of the Asian-American dance-rock band, The Slants, tried to register the band’s name with the PTO. His application was denied based on a federal law prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a).

Tam characterized his trademark registration as an attempt to reclaim a slur and use it as “a badge of pride.” Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

Student free speech.

Writing today at “The Legal Watchdog,” notable Wisconsin defense attorney Michael Cicchini trenchantly points out at “Free speech: A message for public universities (and their students) how Matal v. Tam should help curb free speech constraints currently the rage among do-gooding bureaucrats at public universities. Quoting from the opinion, Cicchini illustrates how There is no hate-speech exception to the First Amendment;”  “You can’t suppress speech you don’t agree with;” and “You should be thankful that you can’t suppress speech you don’t agree with.” His entire post bears reading.

Finally, some have inanely suggested the case is one for folks on the Right to applaud, e.g., “Today in Conservative Media: Applause for a Free Speech Victory at the Supreme Court.” To which, I rejoin, when did the U.S. Constitution and specifically, our fundamental rights become the exclusive purview or calling of one side of the political spectrum?

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Photo credits: Seal of the U.S. Supreme Court, by DonkeyHotey at Flickr Attribution; “sad emoticon,” by shamaasa  at Flickr Attribution; “Resusci-Annie’s Children Remark On the Effectiveness of the First Amendment,” by John Scalzi at Flickr Attribution.

 

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Note: The following story was originally published by ProPublica, “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” It is republished with permission.

The behavior of Bill Kephart, who led the murder prosecution of Fred Steese, was repeatedly lambasted by the Supreme Court of Nevada. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a judge. This month he was charged with misconduct in that position too.

by Megan Rose, ProPublica

May 26, 2017

In the legal world, prosecutors are rarely called out by name. Their misconduct is usually attributed to unidentified prosecutors or the “State” in rulings by appellate judges. But as a Las Vegas prosecutor, Bill Kephart — now a judge — achieved a dubious distinction: He was chastised publicly.

The Supreme Court of Nevada took the rare step in 2001 of ordering him to prove why he shouldn’t be sanctioned for his behavior in one of his cases with a fine or a referral to the state bar for “violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.” The ruling was disseminated statewide and, in Kephart’s own words, “professionally embarrassed” him. In his response, he wrote that the ruling had “already had a great impact” on him and promised that there wouldn’t be “a bona fide allegation of prosecutorial misconduct against me in the future.” The justices nevertheless fined him $250.

Fred Steese served more than 20 years in prison for murder even though evidence in the prosecution’s files proved he didn’t do it. But when the truth came to light, he was offered a confounding deal. Read the story.

The Supreme Court’s rebuke was particularly notable in Nevada, where the judges are elected and part of the state’s insular legal community. They typically rule unanimously and seldom come down too hard on prosecutors. As one retired chief justice put it: “Picking fights with district attorneys might not be the best thing for [a judge’s] career continuation.” But Kephart’s behavior challenged that status quo, compelling one or more of the justices to issue dissents in several cases, saying his behavior called for convictions to be overturned.

Overall, the Nevada high court has noted prosecutorial misconduct in at least five of his cases over a dozen years, not including his actions during the trial of Fred Steese — who was tried by Kephart for a 1992 murder and ruled innocent 20 years later after exculpatory evidence was found in the prosecution’s files. In the cases in which Kephart is not named, he is the prosecutor whose misconduct is cited:

  • In 1996, the court noted “several instances of prosecutorial misconduct” in a sexual assault case. The conviction was upheld, but one justice dissented, saying that Kephart had “infected” an already “muddled case” and it warranted reversal. (In 2001, a judge granted the defendant an evidentiary hearing and he was released.)
  • In 1997, the court reversed the murder convictions of two men based entirely on the “deliberate” and “improper comments” made by the prosecution during cross examination and closing argument. The DA’s office had sought the death penalty, which in Nevada increases costs by about a half million dollars on average, making this and other reversals based on Kephart’s behavior expensive screw-ups for taxpayers. (Both men were retried and convicted again in 1998, one sentenced to life in prison and the other to death.)
  • In 2001, in the case he was fined $250, the court said Kephart gave the jury a misleading explanation of the standard for reasonable doubt when he instructed them: “you have a gut feeling he’s guilty, he’s guilty.” A justice said at a hearing that the remark seemed “like deliberate misrepresentation.” The court upheld the conviction, but noted that Kephart’s “improper remark was particularly reprehensible because this is a capital case and the remark was gratuitous and patently inadequate to convey to the jury its duty…”
  • In 2002, the court took issue with Kephart for assaulting a witness. During the trial of a sexual assault case, Kephart said he wanted to demonstrate how the victim said she was choked, pressing his forearm into the defendant’s neck while he was on the stand. The court upheld the verdict, but noted there was “absolutely no reason” for Kephart’s behavior, which went “well beyond the accepted bounds of permissible advocacy.” One justice dissented, saying “the instances of prosecutorial misconduct were pervasive and substantial…an accused who takes the stand runs many risks. One of them should not be that the prosecutor would physically assault him or her.”
  • In 2008, the court tossed out a murder conviction in another death penalty case, saying, among other issues, the prosecution’s misconduct was “significant” and “occurred throughout the trial,” including Kephart’s remarks during jury selection and in closing. One judge dissented, saying the prosecutorial misconduct and other issues didn’t require reversal. (The defendant eventually pled guilty in 2014.)

In 2002, Kephart prosecuted another highly contested murder case against Kirstin Lobato, then 19, which has garnered national outcry for the meager and sometimes contradictory evidence against her. Lobato was recently granted an evidentiary hearing and is represented by the Innocence Project. This month, the prosecuting officer for the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline filed misconduct charges against Kephart for a media interview he gave about the case last year, in which he said it “was completely justice done.” Kephart’s “statements could affect the outcome or impair the fairness of Miss Lobato’s case,” according to the formal statement of charges. The statement said Kephart violated several rules of the judicial code of conduct. He has not yet filed a reply.

Kephart, who joined the DA’s office in the early 1990s as a brash young attorney, once got in a shoving match with a defense attorney. Another time a judge had to admonish him for repeatedly shaking his head, making faces and rolling his eyes. His behavior eventually led to minor reprimands from the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, according to several people who worked with him during that time. In 2002, after Kephart’s reasonable-doubt flub, the entire DA’s office had to complete a two-hour ethics course and continuing legal education classes, which the deputy district attorneys tagged the “Kephart CLE.” That same year, Kephart was briefly banned from trials. Regardless, he later became a chief deputy.

Kephart also was called before the state bar for his behavior in Steese’s murder trial, but, according to lawyers at the hearing, his boss made an appeal on behalf of him and the other prosecutor on the case, and neither was sanctioned.

Kephart declined several requests for comment.

Despite these repeated critiques of his conduct, Kephart was voted onto the bench in 2010 as a justice of the peace and in 2014 moved to the Eighth Judicial District Court of Nevada, where he today he presides over civil, construction and criminal cases.

Update, May 31, 2017: In his official written response to the disciplinary commission, Kephart has denied charges that he violated judicial canons with his remarks to the media about an open case. His response said that he had “participated in interim rehabilitation by taking classes,” and the commission should consider his honest motives, clean judicial disciplinary record, and “character and reputation.”

Megan Rose covers the military for ProPublica. Previously she was the national correspondent at Stars and Stripes.

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Last July in Courts and Transparency, I discussed the public records case of Les Veskrna, a Lincoln, Nebraska family doctor and executive director of the Children’s Rights Council of Iowa and Nebraska. Veskrna had requested copies or inspection of the court’s continuing education records pertaining to the training judges receive in child custody and parenting time matters from the Nebraska State Court Administrator. After his request was denied, he sued.

A district court earlier ruled against the court administrator and ordered that under Nebraska public records law, the requested Judicial Branch Education (JBE) records be turned over to Veskrna. The court administrator promptly appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Yesterday, the Nebraska high court unanimously affirmed the lower court. It granted Veskrna a sweeping win and ordered access to the requested records, save for a redacted email. The Court also awarded him costs and attorney fees. Read State Ex Re. Veskrna v. Steel 296 Neb. 581 here and also see Supreme Court: Judges’ training documents are public record and Nebraska Supreme Court sets precedent by ruling that some judicial records are public.

No undue interference.

The Nebraska Supreme Court said the under state public records statutes, disclosing the requested records “does not unduly interfere with any essential function of the judicial branch.” 

The Court Administrator, Corey Steel, had argued that the 12 records requested by Veskrna were not public records. Steel also asserted disclosure would violate separation of powers were the Court “to accede to any statutory scheme that mandates the disclosure of JBE records.” The Court, however, explained there was no interference.

“We agree that whether or not we have adopted any court rules concerning the confidentiality of our JBE records, the public records statutes do not trump the constitutional imperative that one branch of government may not unduly interfere with the ability of another branch to perform its essential functions. We simply find no undue interference in disclosing the records at issue.”

One part of the decision drew my immediate interest. It should serve as prudent admonition for other states. Often enough, in my opinion, especially in school funding and state employee pension reform cases, there has been an unfortunate tendency for courts to stretch the bounds of permissible interference on another branch’s “essential functions.” See, for example, How far will the state Supreme Court go on McCleary? and Guinn v. Legislature of State of Nevada and Kansas Supreme Court rules school funding inadequate and Court’s pension ruling could cost Arizona taxpayers millions.

Courts are supposed to interpret not make law. Interests should be balanced and limits assessed with caution.

“It is for the judiciary to say when the Legislature has gone beyond its constitutional powers by enacting a law that invades the province of the judiciary. But the judiciary should “‘“proceed cautiously”’ in relying on ‘inherent authority’” and must give “‘due consideration for equally important executive and legislative functions.’” Determining the constitutional limits of the Legislature’s plenary lawmaking authority in the context of the separation of powers between the judicial function and power and the legislative one is a difficult endeavor that must proceed on a case-by-case basis.” [internal citations omitted]

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/21/NIXONcampaigns.jpg/320px-NIXONcampaigns.jpg

Richard Nixon, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Transparency as virtue.

The Nebraska Supreme Court also cited with approval United States v. Nixon. For those who skipped U.S. history class, Richard Nixon was the 37th President of the United States and had claimed executive privilege on national security grounds to block release of White House audiotapes as part of a cover-up related to the Watergate scandal. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 against him although it did recognize executive privilege as a legitimate power of the president — but not an absolute one. It rejected overly broad claims of executive privilege to shield records from public disclosure laws.

In this context, the Nebraska high court properly said “the ultimate inquiry when faced with the overlapping exercise of constitutionally delegated powers is the extent to which one branch is prevented from accomplishing its constitutionally assigned functions, balanced against the other branch’s need to promote the objectives within its constitutional authority.”  This is a key consideration.

But the other important principle has to be the respect accorded public access and transparency. “We have always supported transparency and the search for truth,” the Court declared. This must remain a cherished virtue even when the legal establishment habitually inclines toward reticence — if not obstinate opacity.

 

 

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