Judicial discipline during a pandemic

The number of public state judicial discipline cases in 2020 — 127 — was about the same number as 2019 even though, like everyone everywhere, judicial conduct commissions had to adjust their operations at short notice during the COVID-19 pandemic.  As commissions begin to release their annual reports for 2020, several have described the effects of the pandemic on their work.

In its annual report for its most recent fiscal year (September 2019 through August 2020), the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct describes how COVID-19 “frustrated normal operations, as it has for other state agencies,” but “caused the Commission to employ new and innovative practices.”  It explains:

Prior to early 2020, very little remote work was performed by Commission staff; however, since the Governor’s emergency order, Commission staff has effectively worked remotely.  The Commission commenced conducting hybrid meetings allowing remote or in-person appearances by Commissioners, staff and judges.  This was accomplished by utilizing Zoom technology provided by the Office of Court Administration while holding meetings around the State – thus far, in West, Central and North Texas.

The report states that “despite the challenges,” the Commission “resolved 1,240 cases which neared the prior ten-year average disposition rate of 1,260.”  (The Commission did note that it had disposed of approximately 27% fewer cases than in fiscal year 2019 because its ability to access information and investigate complaints was “severely limited” “for a significant, extended time” by a “devastating ransomware attack” suffered by the Commission’s information technology provider, the Texas Office of Court Administration.”)

The 2020 annual report of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct describes how the pandemic posed “unprecedented challenges” for the Commission “as it did throughout state government and, indeed, the nation and world.”  It explains the “‘virtual’ administration of the agency” that began in March.

Since then, nearly all agency business has been conducted electronically by staff operating in remote locations.  Commission meetings, staff meetings, investigative interviews, depositions and disciplinary hearings have proceeded via remote video platforms.  Documents have been disseminated and received by email as well as postal or courier services.  Faxes transmitted to the office over telephone lines have been automatically digitized and rerouted to an electronic email in-box.  As a result of these and other adjustments to business-as-usual, the Commission was able to keep abreast of its constitutional responsibilities. . . .

Although it expresses the hope for “a return to its offices in the fall of 2021,” the Commission predicts that “the innovative remote/electronic/operational adaptations necessitated by the pandemic will likely remain part of the ‘new normal’ in the post-Covid era.”

The Commission reports that its 24 public dispositions in 2020 were “the most in any year since 2009.”  The Commission also notes, however, that it received fewer new complaints in 2020 – 1504 compared to 1944 in 2019 — “in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, which caused the courts to close or operate in a limited manner throughout most of 2020.” 

The introduction to the 2020 annual report of the California Commission on Judicial Performance states.

The year 2020 has been extraordinary in many ways.  In the 60 years since the Commission was created, we have not seen the challenges and difficulties that have impacted everyone during this trying time.  The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down and has unfortunately led to tragic consequences for many.  But, in this difficult time, people have risen to the occasion to make sure we can continue to function as a society.  This was the case here at the Commission.  The employees at the Commission have stepped up to put in long hours, working remotely from home, not having the resources that they would normally have, to ensure that the functions and goals of the Commission continue to be met.  The constitutional mandate of the Commission on Judicial Performance is to protect the public.  No one here at the Commission has lost sight of this mandate during these trying times.

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Beginning in March 2020, the Commission conducted all of our regularly scheduled meetings remotely, and we were able to consider each and every complaint filed.  This allowed us to handle matters as they came in and not get backlogged, despite the statewide shutdown.  During these meetings, we continued to have appearances by judges who wanted to be heard regarding their tentative discipline.  With the cooperation of the California Supreme Court, letting us use its courtroom, we were also able to conduct a public formal proceedings hearing with several Commission members appearing in person, as well as the judicial officer, his attorney, and the examiner who prosecuted the case (while properly socially distancing and wearing masks).  The other members of the Commission were able to appear and participate remotely, and members of the public were able to view the hearing via livestream.

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