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Fair Courts E-Lert: Democrats Include Unspecified Structural Court Reforms in Party Platform

This E-Lert highlight’s Democrats’ inclusion of court reforms in their 2020 party platform, the federal judiciary’s decision to table a proposed ban on judicial membership with the ACS and the Federalist Society, and more.

Last Updated: August 21, 2020
Published: July 15, 2021

Federal Courts

Democrats Include Court Reforms in Party Platform

On Tuesday, the Democratic Party approved its 2020 party platform, which includes a call for unspecified “structural court reforms” and the appointment of federal judges with diverse backgrounds and experiences.

In their platform, Democrats said structural court reforms were needed to respond to the Republicans’ efforts to pack the federal courts with “unqualified, partisan judges” and their obstruction of President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016, along with “dozens of diverse lower-court nominees.” The Democrats also pledged to “appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices and federal judges who look like America,” including former public defenders, legal aid attorneys, and civil rights lawyers.

The language calling for court reform was introduced after 22 progressive groups sent a letter to the party’s platform committee, saying the party’s failure to include court reforms “would send Republicans the message that they can continue to break the rules to hijack our courts.” While the platform did not call for specific reforms, a number of groups, such as the Center for American Progress and Fix the Court, have endorsed term limits for Supreme Court justices, while others, such as Take Back The Court and 8 other groups, have endorsed court packing.

Federal Judiciary Tables Proposed Ban on Judicial Membership with ACS and the Federalist Society

The Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct of the U.S. Judicial Conference announced its decision to shelve a draft advisory opinion that would have banned federal judges from holding leadership or membership roles with the American Constitution Society (ACS) or the Federalist Society.

The draft opinion said membership in ACS or the Federalist Society was inconsistent with judicial ethics rules because a judge’s official affiliation with either group could “call into question the affiliated judge’s impartiality” and “generally frustrate the public’s trust in the integrity of the judiciary.” The opinion would not have prevented judges from attending events hosted by either group.

Circulated for comment back in January, the draft opinion prompted criticism from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and at least two op-eds by the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board. It was also admonished by over 200 federal judges (most of whom are Trump appointees), as well as 29 Republican senators, according to the New York Times.

In a memorandum announcing its decision to table the ban, the director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts said the Committee would instead “rely on the advice it has previously provided concerning membership in law-related organizations,” leaving membership decisions to the judgment of individual judges.

States Turn to Virtual Eviction and Foreclosure Proceedings After Courts Lift Eviction Moratoriums

Over half of all states have allowed judges to resume eviction and foreclosure hearings as moratoriums due to the Covid-19 pandemic begin to expire. In addition, the provision in the CARES Act meant to protect renters expired on July 31, leaving as many as 30–40 million Americans housing insecure.

Following an order by the state’s supreme court authorizing remote proceedings, Florida is set to resume eviction and foreclosure hearings remotely, with approximately 51% of renters in the state unable to pay rent due to the economic downturn. Florida has had one of the highest amounts of Covid-19 cases across the country, with nearly 600,000 cases as of August 18.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, local court officials “are confident hearings will run smoothly.” However, legal advocates in the state, such as Eric Dunn, the director of litigation for the National Housing Law Project, have expressed concerns that video proceedings may put residents at greater risk of being improperly evicted.

Other states holding virtual eviction and foreclosure hearings are Georgia, Kansas, and Texas.