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Fair Courts E-Lert: National Center for Access to Justice Releases Justice Index

This E-Lert highlights the National Center for Access to Justice’s updated and expanded Justice Index, the Ohio legislature’s passage of a bill to require party labels for appellate court candidates only, and more.

Last Updated: July 2, 2021
Published: July 13, 2021

National Center for Access to Justice Releases Updated and Expanded Justice Index

The National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School released an updated and expanded version of the Justice Index, a resource that ranks all 50 states and Washington D.C. on “selected best policies for access to justice.”

The Justice Index, which was created in 2014 and later updated in 2016, evaluates each jurisdiction using a 100-point scale in four civil justice categories: attorney access, self-help access, language access, and disability access. In addition to these traditional categories, the 2021 version also includes a separate criminal justice ranking for fines and fees.

The 2021 Justice Index found that Maryland and Massachusetts ranked the highest in terms of access to civil justice, whereas Alabama and South Dakota ranked the lowest. Washington state has the best score for policies that curb abusive fines and fees practices despite imposing harsh punishments for people who cannot afford to pay their court debts, according to the Fines and Fees Index. Wyoming has the lowest score and is “doing almost nothing to protect litigants from abusive fines and fees.”

Ohio Legislature Approves Bill Requiring Party Labels for Some Judicial Candidates

On June 25, Republican lawmakers in Ohio sent a bill to the state’s Republican governor to make certain judicial elections partisan.

Currently, all judicial candidates in Ohio run in partisan elections for the primaries, but they appear without a party affiliation in the general election. The bill, Senate Bill 80, would require party labels during the general election for appellate court races, but not lower court races. It would also move the location of appellate court races on the ballot, moving them higher up to be with other statewide candidates.

The bill was approved largely along party lines in both chambers of the Republican-controlled legislature. Republicans have lost three seats on the state’s supreme court to Democrats in the last two election cycles despite winning other statewide races on the ballot, and Democrats have a chance to flip the court majority next year.

As of May 14, at least 11 other states have considered bills that would inject more politics into how judges are selected, according to a Brennan Center analysis of bills introduced in state legislatures across the country.

Senate Judiciary Approves Bills to Require Cameras in Federal Courtrooms, Including SCOTUS

On June 24, the Senate Judiciary approved two bills that would put cameras in federal courts, including the Supreme Court.

The first bill, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2021, would give court of appeals and district court judges discretion to allow cameras in their courtroom. It is opposed by the federal judiciary because it claims “cameras can intimidate defendants,” “create security and privacy concerns” for persons in the courtroom, and “affect courtroom security of judges, employees, and U.S. marshals.”

Despite this opposition, the bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 16–6 vote.

The second bipartisan bill, the Cameras in the Courtroom Act of 2021, would require the Supreme Court to allow television coverage of all the Court’s open sessions unless a majority of justices vote against doing so. It passed the committee by a 15–7 vote.

These two bills come after courts around the country responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by streaming their proceedings via video or audio. The federal district courts even began a trial to test live audio streaming on YouTube last December.

Renewed Calls to Address Sexual Harassment in the Judiciary

On June 9, law professors Leah Litman (University of Michigan) and Aziz Huq (University of Chicago) wrote in the Washington Post on what institutional changes the judiciary, American Bar Association (ABA), and law schools can make to address sexual harassment in chambers.

They suggest the ABA add to their law school accreditation requirements a requirement that schools share information about allegations of harassment by judges. They argue that if the law schools collectively share their data on which judges have been abusive previously, they could create a more expansive anonymous system for addressing individual complaints of inappropriate behavior.

On June 20, Olivia Warren released a note in the Harvard Law Review in which she describes her experience testifying before the United States House Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she experienced while clerking for the late Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt. Warren says that, judges and institutional stakeholders must begin with the “examination of their power in daily interactions with the people around them, including people who have been harassed and people who have harassed others.”