Grand Jury Reform

Published January 28, 2016 by Anne

Where have we been? Weeping over the inhumanity of a broken Asus laptop. Its failed body safely entombed in the trunk of our car, we are now emotionally able to continue with our regular blogging schedule. Here goes…

Ohio has created a grand jury task force. See Chief Justice Forms Grand Jury Task Force, Court News Ohio (January 27, 2916). Not sure why the grand jury mavens at the University of Dayton School of Law are not on the roster, but we assume and hope that their expertise will be utilized.

Why a grand jury task force? These things usually grow in the wake of some notorious case. Recall, for example, the bevy of petit jury reformers who got to work after the O.J. case in the 90s. Here, the grand jury is getting a closer look after the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland. That grand jury either never took a vote, or did, depending on who’s telling it.

Defunded and Fee-Funded

Published January 12, 2016 by Anne

Connecticut probate courts have been defunded.

That’s right, the legislature will no longer pay for them. Never mind the poor souls who accidentally die in testate, never mind the vulnerable people who are in need of guardianship. Never mind that probate court is supposed to be a public service.

Instead of funding the courts, the legislature raised fees. Thus, the rich (assuming they don’t have enough warning to plan to die elsewhere, and assuming they lack wills) will pay extremely high fees, which supposedly will fund the rest.

This seems to be one decision that will have an adverse effect on both the wealthy and the poor. See Connecticut’s Probate Fee Change Could Drive Out Wealthy, Some Say, Luther Turmelle, New Haven Register (January 4, 2016), and Defunding of Probate Courts Punishes the Poor, Judge Lisa Wexler, Greenwich Time (August 29, 2015). Who’s it good for?

Hail to the Chief Judge

Published January 8, 2016 by Anne

In this day and age, there is a lot we could say about the folks running certain state courts of last resort. Suffice it to say, we will miss the good example set by the pioneering Chief Judge Judith Kaye of New York, who passed away today.

She was smart and innovative, interesting and interested.

Her obituary appears in the New York Times.

Zombie Jamboree

Published January 7, 2016 by Anne

Who pushes the limits of free speech? Artists, writers, comedians, and…zombies.

Already known for his 15-foot tall zombie nativity scene, which went viral (as only a zombie nativity scene can), plus a few other antics, John Forest Thormer was arrested outside the Hamilton County Municipal Court. He was in full zombie getup (of course he was).

Apparently, First Amendment rights do not include use of a megaphone. You’d think trying to impress Tom Arnold (see link to story, below), would be a felony.

See Zombie Nativity Supporter Jailed, Kevin Grasha (hey I went to elementary school with him!), Cincinnati Enquirer (January 5, 2016).

Classic Problem

Published January 6, 2016 by Anne

Tennessee just experienced a problem so classic, you’d think it would have been solved long ago.

To sum it up: a woman was charged with child abuse. She plead guilty to attempted aggravated child neglect, and received probation. The probationer went for over a year without incident, complying with all terms. Then, one fine day at the probation office, she was arrested and sent to federal prison.

See Refugee’s Rare Dialect Exposes Legal System’s Shortcomings, Stacey Barchenger, The Tennessean (January 4, 2016).

What went wrong?

  • The woman is a refugee from Myanmar. Her native language, Matu Chin, is spoken by a very small population. Thus, the state administrative office of courts, which runs the interpreter program, provided no interpreter.
  • The usual procedure when dealing with rare languages is to utilize a commercial service, such as  Language Line, as a last resort. Ethics and professionalism must be taken into account. See, e.g., Wisconsin’s rule, which balances theory and practice quite well. It appears that, upon the reopening of the case, the defendant is being provided with this type of service.
  • Here, the court committed the common mistake of relying on an amateur interpreter. In this case, the person was a trusted pastor. (Note to family and friends: if a court asks you to interpret for a defendant with limited English proficiency, please respectfully request that they find one who is certified by the state court.)
  • Defendant was never informed that her plea could lead to deportation. Such information is required by Padilla.
  • It does not appear that cultural differences were taken into account. Common punishments in one country may not be the norm here (and vice versa). While we need not allow children to suffer in the name of diversity, we should educate parents who are unfamiliar with the law. Here, at least one public defender does reach out to refugees and other immigrants to explain cultural and legal norms.

Hopefully, this case is a lesson for courts in what not to do, and how to improve. The woman’s case is being reopened. Meanwhile, we hope to never see another version of this classic case.

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