A game of thrones

Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic wrote this must-read article yesterday on judicial elections, which remarkably includes a lengthy comment from Justice Don Willett of the Texas Supreme Court1, who himself is a master politician and has managed to get himself elected a number of times.

(Un)surprisingly, Justice Willett is no fan of judicial elections and has some harsh words to say about the process. The request for comment from him was prompted by this frightening ACS study [PDF] on “the effect of campaign contributions on judicial behavior”.

The bottom line, if you haven’t guessed already, is that judicial elections are bad because judges are more likely to vote for the interests that got them elected in the first place. You can read the study if you want all the numbers. They’re horrifying.

Judge Willet writes:

No doubt contributions play a huge role in determining political victors and victims, in judicial races no less than in other branches. My name ID hovers between slim and none, and voters know far more about their American Idol judges than their Supreme Court judges. The crass bottom line is that you spend 99 percent of your time raising a colossal fortune that you then use to bombard voters in hopes of branding your name onto a tiny crevice in their short-term memory for a few fleeting moments.

But it works. That’s the game and he plays it. He wants to be on the biggest stage in Texas and he gets to do it by courting important people who spend money to get him elected. And then, well, why else are they burning cash supporting him? Whether he intentionally or subconsciously doesn’t vote in their favor is beside the point. Wouldn’t they be getting some return on their investment? Why else would they repeatedly spend money?

But really, sitting back and looking at the system right now is fucking depressing.

There’s no funding of indigent defense, no repercussions for abuse of prosecutorial authority, no ethics in elected public defender positions, jurors who want to convict to vindicate OJ and judges who admit to playing the game just to keep their jobs. And what does judicial selection bring? More of the same. While not necessarily as infected as judicial election, the selection process is also inherently biased. After all, governors and presidents select judges. And they select along mostly political lines, so conservatives pick judges who will tend to lean that way and vice-versa. Is it any wonder, then, that the Supreme Court’s approval rating – if such a thing is to be believed – is so…divided?

So we are faced with a system where every single puppet-master is inextricably tied to his or her ideology.

Meanwhile everyday people are subjected to the machinations of those with power or those who want power. But they’re too busy watching Game of Thrones, rather than realizing that they’re the very people their favorite characters are trampling underfoot.

[For further lamentations on the sad state of Texas judicial elections, see this timely post at Grits for Breakfast.]

Flick that as(s)h


No, this is not a post about twerking. Although the people in Illinois who recently passed a bill making it a felony to flick cigarette butts onto streets1 for the third time might reasonably be called “twerps”.

I’m sorry, you need me to say more? Okay. You know that old superstition, three on a match? Where the belief was that you should never light three cigarettes from the same match because it lets the enemy 1) become aware of, 2) sight, and 3) kill you? This is somewhat like that, except when you reach 3 in Illinois, you go to jail for 1-3 years with a felony record.

For flicking cigarette butts out windows.

Because apparently the State of Illinois has solved all of its other problems.

This bill was passed, adding “cigarettes” to the definition of “litter” in this statute, thereby making a third offense for littering a Felony.

For fun, here is everything that counts as litter:

“Litter” means any discarded, used or unconsumed substance or waste. “Litter” may include, but is not limited to, any garbage, trash, refuse, debris, rubbish, grass clippings or other lawn or garden waste, newspaper, magazines, glass, metal, plastic or paper containers or other packaging construction material, abandoned vehicle (as defined in the Illinois Vehicle Code), motor vehicle parts, furniture, oil, carcass of a dead animal, any nauseous or offensive matter of any kind, any object likely to injure any person or create a traffic hazard, potentially infectious medical waste as defined in Section 3.360 of the Environmental Protection Act, or anything else of an unsightly or unsanitary nature, which has been discarded, abandoned or otherwise disposed of improperly.

Remember this the next you’re quick to judge those “criminals”. I bet many of you already are and didn’t even know it.


Not how our system works, but how it behaves

That’s the parting comment with which Gerry Walker ends part 1 of his 2-part series (part 2 here) on his experience as a juror in a downtown New York County courthouse. The full quote:

That day, I received a crash course in not how our judicial system works (because honestly, after serving two weeks on a criminal trial jury I still don’t know), but rather in how it behaves. There are gangs in the courthouse, just like on the streets. There are strategies. There are plans. There are rules to keep others of all kinds in their place. And there are loopholes to those rules from which, if you’re smart and know how to play the game, and don’t mind losing a few friends and perhaps piece of your soul along with them, you could profit by squeezing through.

Gerry walked into the courthouse somewhat of an idealist and instead left fully aware the system works not on grand notions of truth and justice but rather on the individual perceptions and agendas of everyone with a dog in the fight – and mostly those who don’t have one: jurors.

It is rare for attorneys to get inside the minds of jurors so when one chooses to share his/her experiences with the world, it’s a learning moment and, in this case, a fantastic read.

The case was about a guy selling crack to an undercover officer and it seems by Walker’s account that there wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

And then he went to deliberate and his life turned into a version of 12 Angry Men:

As was expected, much debate ensued between those with opposing views. I disagreed with the foreperson’s statements several times in the next hours and could see in her eyes that she did not like me. But that was cool. No one is required to like me. But then something happened that changed me for the rest of the trial. As one woman attempted to explain her reasoning behind voting ‘Not Guilty’, the foreperson, who frequently talked over others and finished their sentences (until I invited her to cease), threw her hands up and said:

“See? This is just how O.J. got off!”

And that was it. That’s when Walker realized that, in America, justice is a game. That no matter what the judge tells you and what you’re fed on the nightly news and through rags that you read, it’s about what you feel in your gut. People disregard jury instructions and vote their conscience based on their life experiences. That people are emotional and no matter how strongly we chastise them to leave those emotions behind, they simply can’t:

So in front of everyone, I asked her:

“Have you ever found yourself in a situation where if somebody else had walked onto the scene, you might have appeared to be doing something that could send you to jail?”

Because I, Gerald Thomas Walker, have. More than once. Where I’m from in inner-city Cleveland, it is quite easy to end up in suspect situations even when you’ve done nothing wrong. And as far as “reasonable doubt” is concerned, as humans we all harbor varying views of exactly what that is, based upon our life experiences, where we’re from and what we’ve been through, what we’ve seen and done, and what has been done to us. I was hoping that the other jurors would empathize with me here, and they did.

How about an excellent question for voir dire there?

The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is this: think like a juror. Think about who you want on your jury. Think about how evidence will affect jurors and how they will see things. Jurors aren’t the most sophisticated in the law, but they are adamant about what they know and what that means.

H/T: Rich Matthews via @JuryVox.

St. John Parish: We, too, record you without your knowledge!

Hello? Can you hear me now?

Hello? Can you hear me now?1

If you’re ever in St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana (and really, after reading this post you should avoid it at all costs), make sure you don’t ever call the police. If you do call the police, pray to St. John the Baptist that you merely get arrested instead of shot and killed.

If you do go to St. John the Baptist Parish, and if you do call the cops and if you do somehow miraculously survive their almost-standard-issue shooting of you and you do end up arrested and alive, be aware that their Sheriff video records all private conversations you have with your attorney.

Scott mentions this recording in his post linked to above, but in an uncharacteristically muted way. I suspect there is some outrage fatigue here, so I’ll take up the cudgel:


Shirking ethics: when you want the job, but not to do it

As I alluded to in my last post, Jacksonville, FL, has an ethical controversy brewing. It involves the elected public defender Matt Shirk and some very questionable hiring decisions he’s made1.

Matt Shirk was covered here in 2008, when he defeated longtime public defender Bill White in an election for the job of Public Defender. Back then I lamented the problems with the position of public defender being an elected one. Shirk’s platform promised no changes to the way things were done, which was kept by him until the day he started when he made huge changes by firing all the most experienced attorneys2. He was also endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and promised not to raise questions about the integrity of their work.

This recent article, however, provides more troubling information about Shirk and his allegiances:

Police chief: public defenders deserve to get shot

Durham, N.C. police chief Jose Lopez has some problems. Commenting negatively on shooting victims is one of them. He is alleged to have said about one David Hall that Hall “deserved to get shot because he was a public defender”. It should be noted that Hall was apparently an innocent bystander victim. It is also unclear from this backgrounder whether Hall deserved to be shot only because he was a public defender or also because he is black.

Anyway, these are the people who you want protecting you, whereas the victims of his shooting ire are the ones you need protecting you.

[Meanwhile in Florida...]

Judge imposes blanket internet ban on sex offender

Right on the heels of my post last week1 about a North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling holding that the state’s social media ban for sex offenders was unconstitutional, a judge right here in the idyllic town of Vernon, CT2 has apparently ordered a man to stay off the internet for the entire period of his 10 year probation.

Just, all of it. No emails, no Youtube, no Facebook, no Facebook, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Tumblr or Kickstarter or whatever the hell these kids are watching these days. Heck, no New York Times or CNN or Hartford Courant or WhiteHouse.Gov or SignThisEPetition.Com or whatever the web will become in 4 years’ time which is when he will get out of jail3.

Gregory Lindsey was sentenced to 10 years, suspended after 4 years in jail, followed by 10 years probation for possession of child pornography in the second degree, which is a subject I wrote about just the other day.