the least dangerous blog
Posted in Access on Monday March 04 2013 @ 7:00am
Not long ago, Nina Totenberg noted that the Supreme Court of the United States was about to hear arguments in a case in which the defendant had filed a handwritten brief. She compared it to a long-ago case, Gideon v. Wainwright, that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, See Prisoner's Handwritten Petition Prompts Justices to Weigh Government Immunity, Nina Totenberg, Morning Edition, NPR (February 19, 2013).
This got us thinking (uh-oh!). Artist and Funk Queen Lynda Barry asks
Don't write like a girl, the theory being that They can tell gender by handwriting, and will grade accordingly, or at least have this in the backs of Their minds when grading. Beautifully handwritten addresses on wedding invitations are classy. A handwritten note sent via snail mail is quaint. A handwritten pleading in court means pro se, crazy, criminal, or uneducated.
Courts have rules about these things. Here are a few:
- Nebraska's Rule 9-4 allows pro se litigants to submit handwritten pleadings that follow the prescribed form. They must be in ink and somewhat neat.
- Washington's LCR No. 7 allows handwritten pleadings, but any written in cursive must include a typed or hand printed copy.
- The Pennsylvania Code's section 1005.1 just says no.
Well, you get the idea.
Handwritten pleadings illustrate the lines between access and utility. Yes, even in these days of texting, e-signatures, paperless offices, and Google goggles, we want everyone to be able to sit down and draft their own pleadings with whatever they happen to have available. On the other hand, what good are handwritten pleadings if the court can't read them? Or, what if the court is inundated with handwritten pleadings, leaving it no time to process important cases? There is some bad information going around jails in the U.S. that makes inmates think that they have legal rights to their own signature. Hence, handwritten pleadings may include a copyright symbol or other identifying marks. See The Anti-Government Movement Today Ericksen and Skove, Future Trends in State Courts 2006, 25-26.
It's In There!
Posted in Jury on Thursday January 17 2013 @ 6:48am
What's in the Constitution?
The funny thing about the U.S. Constitution -- everybody seems to want to dismantle it. Only, they can't agree on which parts to dismantle. Maybe the lack of bipartisanship is a good thing, come to think of it.
Is there any Amendment that is better than the others? We have been partial to the Seventh here, at times, but mainly due to its tendency to disappear silently. You don't see exciting rallies or organizations backing it, and most people don't really think about it -- odd, because it is the one that the average person would (or should we say
will?) miss the most. The right to a jury trial in civil cases is the foundation of our political and legal system.
Ask any colonist -- what's in there is there to protect citizens from state intrusion. Our homes, property, bodies, liberty -- the defense of all of these is insured and assured by the Bill of Rights.
Various rights are sexier than others, and thus more newsworthy. Second Amendment! It's in there! Why? Well, the jury (ha) is out, but unless you are a strict constructionist, you will not buy that colonial militia/musket argument any more than you think there's no right to reproductive freedom because the founding fathers thought women were incompetent and couldn't possibly predict the existence of these people. If we pay attention to caselaw, as we all must, then Heller carries the same weight as Roe v. Wade.
No special exceptions for religious healthcare providers? Letting mean people speak out in public? By golly, it's all in there!
But oooohhhhh, noooooo, you are a proudly political [insert label here]! Like Hall and Oates, you can't go for that, no can do! What to do? Blame someone! Pick a group of unpopular weirdoes (gays, women, gun owners, people with mental illnesses, criminal defendants, the overly litigious, artists, union members, journalists, or all of the above if possible) on which to foist regulations that curb rights. This is a very good move, because nobody can defend the curbing without simultaneously defending the unpopular people. As we all learned in junior high, defending the unpopular is *not* what you want to be caught doing.
Anyone who has spent even five seconds as a public defender, or who has been perceived as such (when we worked at Legal Aid in the 90s, a Christian broadcaster wanted to do an expose on how we helped defend drug dealers -- odd, since we never took criminal cases), has had to respond to this question from family, friends, and passers-by:
How can you defend THOSE people? One helpful way to explain yourselves, you public defenders who already have had a worse day than almost anyone else, is to hand out a little pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. Say, "It's in there!" Do it in your best faux Italian accent, like the Prego commercial. This will not only educate others, but also stir warm memories of store-bought spaghetti sauce and classic 80s tv ads.
We love the saying,
Even a blind pig finds an acorn once in awhile. Tea Partiers in Ohio and elsewhere proposed a Very Special Rule that schools must teach the Constitution. Was this a good idea? Yes (except for the annotations and additions in the Tea Party Constitution. Just read it, already, kids! Leave a copy on the coffee table at home. Maybe your parents, curious but afraid to ask, will pick it up and peruse it themselves.
What's in there? Your rights. Be careful with them, or you, too, may one day find that you've become a gay woman artsy journalist in a union suffering from depression, accused of throwing a sno-cone and/or other menacing projectile weaponry (why bother to define it?), wanting to sue someone.
Words of Wisdom
Posted in Criminal on Friday December 14 2012 @ 5:39pm
"It's a lot easier to outrun a knife than it is a speeding bullet."
-- Roger Groot
Posted in Courthouses on Wednesday October 31 2012 @ 7:22am
It's that time of year when we look at haunted courthouses and other scary court-related phenomenon.
First, we have Pickens County, Alabama, where, after suffering a humiliating burning at the hands of the Union, the rebuilt courthouse burned again during an attempted burglary. This resulted in a lynching, with the lynched man saying,
If you kill me, I am going to haunt you for the rest of your lives! And he did. The real-life implications of the history behind this story live on, haunting our entire country.
Normally, we limit our haunts to courthouses, but the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, is apparently haunted as well. Visitors can take a ghost tour, various Ghost Events, and Haunted Prison Experience. Yikes.
Finally, as with the Alabama example above, we know that reality is always more frightening than any story we can conjure. See You Want My Support? How Much Are You Offering? Matthew J.X. Malady, Slate (October 31, 2012). Thanks to court-o-rama's spouse for the tip.
Posted in Civil on Saturday October 27 2012 @ 11:30am
If we hear the tort myth one more time we are going to scream.
It may be too late. We may have screamed, just a little, a few dozen times already during this election season.
It is tiring and tiresome to hear the same old mistaken myth repeated again and again, as such myths tend to be told. But, unlike crazy pop rocks stories, believing in the tort myth can do real harm.
We are NOT a litigious society. That the ABA, NCSC, and several independent academics and other groups have studied what they've dubbed The Vanishing Trial, is our first clue. Indeed, decades' worth of statistics from the nonpartisan NCSC (where, we will disclose, both court-o-rama.org staff used to work, but not on the Court Statistics Project) show, with no hocus-pocus or fuzzy logic, that only a small percentage of criminal and civil cases make it to trial.
Medical malpractice is likewise not a pressing problem. The NCSL's Heather Morton does a fantastic job of corralling state legislation on the topic. Medmal cases represent a tiny fraction (usually around 1%) of tort caseloads, and an even smaller percentage of those will go to trial. Moreover, these cases are decreasing, and plaintiffs do not win often -- one study from NCSC pegs the jury trial win rate at 23%. (See Medical Malpractice Litigation in State Courts, LaFountain and Lee, NCSC/CSP, April 2011, downloadable here.)
Keep repeating the myth, and the myth wins. Please, keep court-o-rama.org from screaming any more!
For more information, please refer to the Torts Resource Guide from the National Center for State Courts.
Speeding On Through
Posted in Traffic on Sunday August 19 2012 @ 3:51am
Must be a slow news day at the local paper. Sunday's big chart-happy news is this: Tickets Rise in Region's Community Jurisdictions, Dan Horn and Kimball Perry, Cincinnati Enquirer (August 18, 2012).
We've seen this before -- it is summer, the election season is not yet into full swing, school is just about to start, so the media jumps on this amazing story of People! Getting! Speeding! Tix!!!!!
It's easy to say that small-town courts, be they muni or mayor's or some other permutation, exist for the money. First, a note to courts: read up on public trust and confidence. You're never too small -- in fact, the smaller the court, the more likely people are to find themselves there. Is oversight accurate? Are funds being taken care of properly? Is justice dispensed equally? Is there a perception of unfairness? This is important stuff, so if there's an issue, fix it.
Now, a note to everyone else...enough already! Yes, small towns give out speeding tickets. There are
speed traps! They are also called
towns. We used to live in a county of 6000 (though pop. seemed to rise to 100,000 during coverage of the Michael Vick case). It's true -- not much happens in these places on an average day. Speeding is against the law there, as it is everywhere, but there is more time to enforce such laws in smaller jurisdictions. Also, people in small towns do not like being treated as flyover country -- stop and smell the roses instead of trying to run everyone down, for pete's sake.
Newsflash: the real issue with Ohio's mayor's courts is that they do not exist in the judicial branch. But that sounds too much like a boring civics lesson to pass for an OMG in-depth Sunday paper story. Everybody hates getting tickets, but nobody likes to discuss separation of powers. Hunh? What's that? You gotta get to the pool before the summer's over? Ok, well, have fun.
Voir Dire, Oh Dear
Posted in Jury on Thursday June 14 2012 @ 7:05am
How do you pronounce
voir dire? It sounds like
tee em eye to some people.
A recent prospective juror said TMI to the summons questionnaire, and refused to fill it out. Wife's maiden name? Your insurance company? See Juror: Court Questionnaire Too Invasive, Lindsay Field, Marietta Daily Journal (June 11, 2012).
We know of at least one South Carolinian who likewise refused to fill out a questionnaire asking prospective jurors which news programs they watched or listened to, the titles of periodicals to which they subscribed, and what bumper stickers were on their vehicles. In the end, it didn't matter, because this fine citizen could otherwise claim an age exemption (which he did).
Meanwhile, a Houstonite asks whether these questions must be answered. See Lipman: Prospective Juror Objects to Nosy Questions, Ronald Lipman, Houston Chronicle (June 9, 2012). The answer, of course, is yes.
Jurors in the Edwards trial had to tell the court how long they had lived at their current residence, all addresses and employment history for the past ten years, employment status (including options such as
on strike or other labor stoppage), supervisory experience, reason for leaving for any job in the past ten years, public employment (including schools, government, etc.) of anyone close to you, occupations of all people with whom they currently lived, and whether any member of the household had a blog. Thaddeus Hoffmeister has a copy of the questionnaire, along with several others from recent high-profile cases, on his blog.
Meanwhile a Straight Dope reader asks Is it possible to not have contempt for the US Judiciary? The answer, again, appears to be yes.
How much is too much? Asking jurors about past prescription drug use seems like too much. OTOH, it could be relevant if it was, say, for the trial of people accused of providing drugs to Anna Nicole Smith. See Judge Orders Jurors to Disclose Prescription Drug History, Jeralyn, TalkLeft (July 20, 2010). Did it work? Kinda, sorta. See 2 Guilty of Conspiracy, 1 Acquitted in Anna Nicole Smith Drug Case, Mike von Fremd and Sarah Netter, ABC News (October 28, 2010).
Over-nosiness is the court system's loss. Many if not most of these cases involve civic-minded people who would have enjoyed the experience, but for their initial horror. Receiving an overly broad questionnaire on court letterhead, with the threat of contempt and fines for not answering in full, is not a good experience, particularly in this age of privacy concerns, on social media, via locational data, and as students. Hat-tip to maura for the expert links.
Posted in Jury on Friday June 08 2012 @ 8:13am
How brave are jurors? If you've ever seen the hilariously apt Order in the Classroom video with the professor explaining their task to a
class of jurors -- the professor is often mistaken for Judge Dann -- you know that jurors are given very few tools with which to perform their job. (For the record, we are pretty sure Judge Dann is not the professor, although it is true we've never seen the two of them in a room together.)
Jurors may have to roll up their pantlegs and don their snake-proof boots to wade through throngs of campers on the courthouse steps each day. Talking to the media about a job you've probably never done before takes a measure of courage. In the alternative, telling the media to scram (which is any juror's right) is another exercise in bravery.
Jurors' bravest moment of all, though, comes from the reality of public opinion when the case is over. A jury in Buffalo recently convicted a local doctor of a misdemeanor, driving while intoxicated. They acquitted him on several other charges, including felony manslaughter and evidence-tampering.
The public was displeased with the result. In response, one juror released a statement explaining jurors' reasoning. And, the local bar stepped in to defend and thank jurors. See Bar Group Lauds Juror Recap on Corasanti, Patrick Lakamp, Buffalo News (June 8, 2012).
Real change might come from amending current leaving-the-scene laws to omit the scienter requirement. See Corasanti Verdict Inspires Proposed Change in Law, Ed Reilly, WKBW (June 7, 2012).
Media Cheat Sheet
Posted in Access on Tuesday June 05 2012 @ 8:32am
For over a decade at NCSC, I worked in an office where we responded to hundreds of media queries about the court world each year. Here are a few helpful hints for the media (even for that obnoxious guy at that one place -- I was horribly happy when your magazine went under!):
- Court is not sensational. It is full of procedure (what you incorrectly call
technicalities). It is quite unlike courts on TV or movies -- if you don't believe me, believe Sonia Buck. It can be slow. You may have to do this boring thing called
waiting.While you do it, look around -- there are interesting things everywhere in a courthouse. There are wedding parties in hallways, families clustered together in grief or joy, business people crossing their t's and dotting their i's, art and architecture, lawyers who love nothing more than hanging out talking to people, and court employees who make it all run smoothly. The excitement comes from the fact that, most of the time, our boring little common law system works pretty well. Enjoy the pace.
- Be kind to jurors. If I learned one thing in my years finding content for the Jur-E Bulletin, it is that jurors are stressed out, and you are no help. Let them tell their story if they wish. If they don't wish, please go away. They have spent hours if not days, weeks, or months poring over evidence, listening to difficult testimony, and learning about their important role -- one they may be doing for the first and last time in their lives.
- There are not statistics about every part of everything that ever happened. Yes, NCSC's Court Statistics Project does a great job collecting and communicating court-related statistics. It is flattering of you to think they have the information you seek. However, many unknown unknowns remain. Courts tend to compile statistics annually, not hourly, so please be patient. Courts do not all do the same things or count those things the same way. Thus, a national number for any given question is often difficult to find. A good alternative is to research locally -- find a jurisdiction (city, county, state, region) that has a history of doing the kind of thing you're examining. Drug courts, for example, might be set up differently in different jurisdictions. Focus on a state or a few select counties where drug courts are similar, and where the programs keep the information you seek.
- Never say
among the first,if you must. No matter how unheard-of, whatever neat new thing you're writing about has probably been at least considered elsewhere. The second you say
first,a retired judge from Nebraska will call you and chew you out for not recognizing his efforts on the very topic back in 1946. A good example: DUI App Believed to Be First in Nation, Janice Morse, Cincinnati Enquirer (June 2, 2012).
- Listen and learn! One of the best reporters I ever talked to was one who listened to me blah blah blah on for about an hour about a then-recent Supreme Court case. He didn't have impossible yes-or-no, true/false questions already prepared for me. He wanted to learn about the case, and how the opinion would affect cases in his state. He hadn't already written it, he called to learn about it first. For the fine result, see Justice Reconsidered. Vince Darcangelo, Boulder Weekly (yes, I much prefer weeklies, with their sane deadlines!) (January 27, 2005).
- Learn the rules. The media represents the public; they have no more access or rights than anyone else. Judges aren't going to chatter on about a case like a blogger with too much time on her hands. What happens in grand juries, mediations, etc., is confidential. In Canada, petit juries are not permitted to speak to the media at all. Due to logistics and the public interest in keeping courts sane, fair, and orderly, there are rules about cameras in the courts. The rules were not created to make you, personally, miserable.
- PIOs are here to help you. They are cool people who know a lot.
Court-o-rama.org, with Relish
Posted in Courthouses on Monday May 21 2012 @ 5:19am
Every so often court-related happenings seem like they were staged just for us. It doesn't get much more tailor-made than Hot Dog Stands: Threat to Security or Cholesterol? Carl Weiser, Politics Extra (May 18, 2012).
The skewed way we look at things, this is partly good news. Why? Because it is evidence that people are, in fact, considering security of the perimeter. This is something often omitted from court security plans. Yet, outside sidewalks, parking lots, etc., are frequently where court customers experience violence and threats. We worry so much about the entrances, long lines, scanning devices, etc., and less about the perimeter.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Nasty custody case? Make sure family members are escorted to and from their cars, if need be.
- Do jurors and witnesses feel safe coming to and from court? Make sure that they do.
- Are usable entrances clearly marked? This seems silly, but we've been to more old courthouses that now only use one door, for safety's sake or due to renovations. But which door? Often the correct door is not apparent to newcomers. Talk about an access issue!
- HIgh-profile trials, where protesters, media, gawkers, etc. camp outside the courthouse for days, may require extra security due to the exponential rise in population around the building. The Arkansas AOC security plan makes note of this.
- Escapees go -- guess where? Yep. Perimeter!
So, it is conceivable that a hot dog stand could be yet another obstacle to perimeter safety. But tube steaks are probably the least of our problems.
What's next? Probably consumer uprising against the disturbing hot dog/bun ratio problem, as explained by Steve Martin.
It takes TWO people for a 'we' to get excited.
Bail us out...
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