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September 2011

Diversity Increasing in Federal Judiciary

There was a time not long ago when the word “judge” conjured up an image of a gray-haired white male, as the vast majority of courtroom judges (and in movies, for that matter) fit that description.

Times have changed, and rather dramatically. Recently-reported statistics on the makeup of the federal judiciary show that more than 70 percent of confirmed nominees have been either women or minorities during the past three years. This accelerates a trend that began during the terms of the past several presidents, who all made concerted efforts to diversify the federal bench. Considering that it took our country more than 140 years before it had any female or minority judges, this can only be viewed as good news.

The breakdown of recently-confirmed federal judges is 21 percent African-American, 11 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian-American and 47 percent women. This is remarkably close to the general population, based on 2010 census information showing that the U.S. population is roughly 13 percent African-American, 16 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian-American and 51 percent female.

Lots of people complain about the judicial system and its limitations, but far fewer offer any constructive suggestions as to how it should be improved. Nonetheless, the vision of a federal judiciary that resembles the people it serves is quietly becoming a reality.

Posted: 9/30/2011 2:10:47 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Judicial Conference Moves to Keep Court Proceedings Public

The Judicial Conference of the United States recently took steps to limit the civil cases in which entire court records are sealed.

The Conference, the principal policy-making body for U.S. federal courts, adopted a new national policy that instructs judges to seal entire cases only as a last resort. The new policy says “Any order sealing an entire civil case should contain findings justifying the sealing, and the seal should be lifted when the reason for sealing has ended.”

In speaking to reporters about the new recommendations, Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said “. . . the court’s business is the people’s business.” The judge is exactly right.

Open courtrooms and public trials are an integral part of a thriving democracy. Kudos to the Judicial Conference for taking steps that – while arguably creating more work for federal judges – further that ideal.

Posted: 9/30/2011 12:40:48 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Texas Lawyers Step Up to Assist Victims of Wildfires

There is no shortage of media insinuations that lawyers are a greedy bunch, but the public too rarely hears about all the good that lawyers do.  So kudos to the Austin Bar Association, the State Bar of Texas, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and a number of other lawyer organizations that have leapt into action to assist the huge number of people who have been victims of the rampant wildfires across Texas.  

The Austin Bar Association has already set up legal clinics at six locations in Bastrop County, site of the largest and most damaging fires, where volunteer attorneys will provide free legal advice to fire victims daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  The Austin Bar  is also soliciting donations for victims and locating office space for displaced attorneys.  For clinic locations or to volunteer, go the Austin Bar Association Web Site at www.austinbar.org.  

The State Bar of Texas and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid have set up hotlines to answer legal questions related to the disaster.  The State Bar's hotline is 1-800-504-7030, and Texas RioGrande can be reached at 1-866-757-1570.  The State Bar of Texas also has an excellent listing of disaster relief resources located here

This is not a one-time effort, either.  These organizations all have a history of springing into action after natural disasters, particularly Hurricanes Ike and Katrina, where both citizens and displaced attorneys were the recipients of considerable assistance at the hands of volunteer attorneys and bar oganizations in Texas.  But you probably didn't hear about that, either.    

Posted: 9/8/2011 2:20:03 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 2 comments

No, You Can't Befriend the Defendant, Either . . .

The right to trial by jury has been with us since the nation was founded, but there are times when its role as an impartial finder of fact is tested by developments that the Founding Fathers could not even begin to imagine. 

Facebook, for example.   

A recent traffic accident case in Judge Wade Birdwell’s Fort Worth courtroom demonstrates the challenges that the Internet and social media pose to the right to trial by jury, which depends upon all twelve jurors avoiding any outside influence on their decisions.  As always, the jurors in Fort Worth were instructed not to discuss the case and specifically were prohibited from posting related commentary on social media. 
Despite the warnings, juror Jonathan Hudson, 22, sent a Facebook friend request to the defendant on the first day of trial. After the defendant told her lawyer about the message, Judge Birdwell immediately removed Hudson from the jury panel. Though he complained that he was unfairly targeted – not surprisingly, on his Facebook page – Hudson pleaded guilty to contempt of court and was sentenced to two days of community service.

The prosecutor called it a first, but it probably won’t be the last.  Today’s 22-year-olds have a far different and more integrated experience with social media and the Internet than do older generations – including most lawyers and judges – and the ubiquitous smart phone makes it incredibly easy for a juror to send inappropriate communications or conduct research on the case they have been asked to decide.

It is worth noting that the defense lawyer immediately notified the judge of the juror’s transgression, even though that juror – given his interest in the defendant – was probably one he would have liked to keep. The defense attorney’s actions show two things: that good lawyers take seriously their obligation to ensure the fairness of the tribunal (unlike they are often portrayed on TV), and that they will have their hands full in the future trying to protect the integrity of the jury trial from the intrusions of the information age.       
 

Posted: 9/8/2011 12:16:14 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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