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Time to fight for better judges in criminal court, too


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Time to fight for better judges in criminal court, too

  • Suit filed by strip club workers in Columbus sheds light on troubled vice squad

  • One year after Cook County’s bail reform, court watchers say things are getting worse

  • Tennessee man set for execution says he prefers electric chair over lethal injection ‘torture’

  • People in Pennsylvania prisons can now only get black-and-white printouts of their kids’ drawings

  • Police officer who killed Tamir Rice hired again as a cop

  • Sheriff and phone contractor knew about illegal recording of jail calls

In the Spotlight

Time to fight for better judges in criminal court, too

Today, Brett Kavanaugh takes his seat on the Supreme Court after hearings that, for many, demolished what little faith they had left in the legitimacy of the confirmation process or in the idea that government at the highest levels would seriously examine allegations of sexual assault against a powerful man. Kavanaugh now sits for life, or until retirement, on the country’s highest court, and he will play a role in shaping its jurisprudence for decades. Based on his record, we can expect him to vote to uphold death sentences and conditions in solitary confinement and to show broad deference to law enforcement. [Kyle C. Barry / The Appeal]

With the approach of elections in November, this is a good time to think not just about who we want confirming Supreme Court justices but also about who we want as judges in the criminal courtrooms across the country. For the vast majority of criminal defendants, “court” means the trial-level state courts where the daily grind of arraignment, bail decisions, grand jury proceedings, pretrial hearings, guilty pleas, trials, and sentencing happens. The entire federal court system hears only 354,000 trial cases a year, compared to 84 million in the state courts. These courts are far less lofty than the Supreme Court and the settings are less grand than the courtrooms in federal courthouses. On their own, each individual court’s role hardly registers against the enormous impact the Supreme Court has on American life. But these often-dispiriting settings are where the administration of justice happens for most people who are arrested and prosecuted, and for any of their loved ones who have waited in long lines outside courthouses or spent long days on courtroom benches. [Court Statistics Project]

Writing for Vice in 2015, a federal bankruptcy judge described her experience accompanying her public defender daughter to Bronx criminal court to observe arraignment and bail hearings. What she saw appalled her: “The fact that the Bronx criminal courthouse is not fancy is no shocker—no grand marble staircases like those at my courthouse. But little things matter. … Thinking about the amount of time families must spend here, I was struck by how bleak this place was intended to be.” [Hon. Shelley C. Chapman / Vice]

And it was not just the physical facilities that are disappointing. “I was shocked at the casual racism emanating from the bench,” she wrote. The judge explained a ‘stay away’ order to a Hispanic defendant by saying that if the complainant calls and invites you over for ‘rice and beans,’ you cannot go. She lectured some defendants that most young men ‘with names like yours’ have lengthy criminal records by the time they reach a certain age.” [Hon. Shelley C. Chapman / Vice]

To people subjected to those grim realities, of course, nothing the judge wrote was a surprise. In the last several years, groups in multiple cities have started court watch programs that draw wider attention to the proceedings in local courts. In New York, volunteers with the recently launched Court Watch NYC program chronicle the daily denials of justice for poor Black and brown people who appear in court. An update from September 18-24 included this:

“A middle aged black man was brought in on outstanding warrant. He had been attending a court-mandated year-long program but dropped out near it’s [sic] completion to care for his mother with Alzheimers [sic] after she became seriously ill. His mother died shortly thereafter. Judge rules he must redo program in it’s [sic] entirety.” [Court Watch NYC]

As with prosecutor elections, people aware of the injustices of the criminal legal system are waking up to the importance of judicial elections. Unlike the federal system where all judges are appointed, roughly 90 percent of state court judges are elected. There are concerns that judicial elections leave judges “beholden to special interests, campaign financiers, and the manipulations of negative advertising.” Another concern is that in states with partisan judicial elections, judges become part of partisan politics. [Jed Shugerman / Daily Beast] Very often the names that appear on primary or general election ballots are the product of backroom deals orchestrated by party leaders. Even a process where voters are directly involved in selecting judges can be engineered to leave little choice and little information. [Benjamin Mueller / New York Times]

Yet there are still openings for change. In Chicago, community groups recently organized the Coalition to Dump Matt Coghlan in an effort to oust a county circuit judge. Coghlan, like 59 other judges in Cook County, is standing for retention this fall. Injustice Watch’s review of Coghlan’s record showed that he “had a history of harsh sentences, including one-year sentences for Black defendants convicted of marijuana possession,” and had been criticized for lenient sentences for police officers convicted of crimes. He is also a defendant in a civil lawsuit for having allegedly framed two men for murder when he was a prosecutor. The effort to block Coghlan’s retention had a major victory last month when the Cook County Democratic Party refused to recommend Coghlan for retention, ending a 28-year-old tradition of blanket endorsements. This means that the party will not take the usual steps of urging voters to retain all judges in sample ballots and in automated telephone calls to voters. Because Cook County is a Democratic Party stronghold, that support is typically crucial.  [Mari Cohen / Injustice Watch]

Injustice Watch has reviewed the records of all judges up for retention elections in Cook County this fall.

Stories From The Appeal

An activist confronting a Columbus police officer outside the governor’s mansion in Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, in April 2017. [Katie Forbes]

Suit Filed By Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad. The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns. [Melissa Gira Grant]

One Year After Cook County’s Bail Reform, Court Watchers Say Things Are Getting Worse. Judges are still setting bail at unaffordable levels, and more people are being held without bond. [Bryce Covert]

Stories From Around the Country

Tennessee man set for execution says he prefers electric chair over lethal injection ‘torture’: Edmund Zagorski, scheduled to be executed Thursday, has told Tennessee prison officials that he wants to be executed by electric chair rather than by lethal injection, an option available to those sentenced to death before 1999. His decision came within hours of the Tennessee Supreme Court ruling Monday that the state can continue to use a three-drug lethal injection protocol that includes the sedative midazolam. The Tennessean reported that during the hearing on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s use of midazolam, experts testified that the drug failed to render people unconscious, leaving them able to experience the “burning pain and experience of being buried alive” that the other two drugs create. Zagorski says in his affidavit that while he believes both methods are unconstitutional, “I do not want to be subjected to the torture of the current lethal injection method.” A corrections department spokesperson told The Tennessean that she did not know if the electric chair would be used. Tennessee last used the electric chair in 2007. [Adam Tamburin / The Tennessean] See also Six members of the jury that sentenced Zagorski to death in 1984 say they would have voted for a sentence of life without parole if that had been an option at the time. [Steve Hale / Nashville Scene]

People in Pennsylvania prisons can now only get black-and-white printouts of their kids’ drawings: In September, Pennsylvania became the first state to entirely eliminate “personal mail” for people in prison. This means that people in prison “can no longer receive birthday cards, handwritten notes from Grandma, or drawings from their children.” Instead, every piece of mail is converted into a searchable electronic document and then, after review, delivered as a black-and-white printout. Pennsylvania corrections department uses the MailGuard system from Smart Communications, a company that contracts with prisons to provide technological services, including e-messaging. Smart Communications rolled out Mail Guard in 2016, promoting it “as the first system to fully eliminate postal mail in jails.” According to a copy of the contract obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has agreed to pay Smart Communications $376,000 per month for its services through July 2021. [Victoria Law / Bloomberg Businessweek] See also: The Appeal reported on the personal mail restrictions when they were introduced in September.  

Police officer who killed Tamir Rice hired again as a cop: Timothy Loehmann, one of the officers who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014, has a part-time job with the Bellaire Police Department. Loehmann was a rookie police officer when Rice was killed. He was  fired from the Cleveland Police Department in 2017 for lying on his job application. No charges were brought against any of the officers involved in Rice’s killing. The president of the Cleveland Police Union told the Wheeling News-Register that Loehmann’s departure from the Cleveland police was unjustified and that he hoped Loehmann would be a full-time officer again soon. [Shelley Hanson / Wheeling News-Register]

Sheriff and phone contractor knew about illegal recording of jail calls: A motion filed by the Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders alleges that the Sheriff’s Department and Global Tel Link (GTL), the county’s jail telephone contractor, were aware of the unconstitutional recording of calls between people held at the jail and their lawyers from 2015 to 2018. GTL acknowledged that over a thousand calls were illegally recorded due to “human error,” according to the sheriff and the company. Sheriff’s deputies accessed 58 of the calls. Sanders is arguing that both the company and the sheriff’s department intentionally accessed calls and covered up their actions. Of particular concern is a two-week period in June 2016 when the public defender’s office’s number was taken off the do-not-record list. [Thy Vo / Voice of OC]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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