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Accountability Should Not End at the Federal Courthouse Steps
By James C. Turner and Suzanne M. Blonder*

At long last our federal courts are strengthening systems that protect the public and hold judges accountable.  State governments need to wake up and implement similar reforms that will bring much-needed sunshine and accountability to their courts.

Last week, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts announced dramatic changes that
tighten conflict of interest rules and promise to end secret lobbying of federal judges at posh resorts.  The new rules require judges to use computer software to identify cases where they should disqualify themselves and mandate prompt reports about privately sponsored trips that will be made publicly available on the Internet.  Americans can now be sure that the federal judge hearing their case is truly impartial.

On the same day, a blue-ribbon committee led by Associate Supreme Court
Justice Stephen Breyer highlighted serious problems in the U.S. judicial
accountability system including an “error rate” of nearly 30 percent in
high-profile cases, closed-door procedures, lax time standards and out-dated
Internet sites.  In response, the committee endorsed review of complaints by
outside judges to avoid “home court” bias, improved training, increased public disclosure and improved public Internet resources.

  These actions implement judicial accountability reforms that our legal reform group, HALT, has long sought to address the lack of transparency and impartiality.  As Justice Breyer acknowledged, “we decided to respond directly to the criticism, and the criticism turned out to be constructive.”

That’s all good news, but most legal problems don’t end up in federal courts.  Here are just three recent examples of state accountability failures.

· In Maryland, Judge Richard Palumbo was allowed to quietly retire with his full pension despite complaints that he arbitrarily denied a protective order to an abused woman who was later doused with gasoline and suffered burns on 60 percent of her body.

· In Florida, Judge Richard Albritton received only a one-month suspension and small fine after admitting that he solicited lawyers for gifts, free lunches, hunting trips and parties.

· In California, despite a long history of ignoring due process rules, Judge Pamela Iles has received only private admonishments (four separate times).

These miscarriages of justice happen because state judicial disability commissions fail Americans in four ways.

Toothlessness—The vast majority of complaints against judges are ignored or
summarily dismissed, and when there is discipline, it’s almost always a private slap on the wrist.

Secrecy—Most state systems operate behind closed doors with no public access.

Insularity—Non-judges have only token participation, never constituting more
than one-third of the hearing commissioners who review complaints.

Delay—It often takes years to even review complaints.

With this record, is it any surprise that a recent ABA survey found that only 32 percent of Americans have confidence in our judges?

The only way this will change is through judicial accountability reforms that ensure openness and impartiality in both state and federal courts.  All of us—judges, lawyers and ordinary citizens—have a shared stake in seeing that it happens.

* James C. Turner is executive director and Suzanne M. Blonder is associate
counsel at HALT – An Organization of Americans for Legal Reform,
www.halt.org, a nonprofit public interest group dedicated to expanding access and accountability in the civil justice system.

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