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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Piling on Judge Posner

Cue the outrage: Judge Posner is in the news again for researching facts outside the record and using those facts in judicial opinions. His earlier research included issues of donning and doffing work clothes, dreadlocks in prisons, guns and danger, a traveling would-be preacher and campus geography,  and a rabbi involved in a dispute with Northwestern University. Unlike some judges who do research but don't disclose it, Judge Posner is forthright about his research, discussing it at length in chapter 5 of his book, Reflections on Judging.

Although federal judicial ethics rules (Canon 3(A)(4)) are implicated when judges do their own fact research, in practice the propriety of the research tends to come down to whether judicial notice would be proper. For adjudicative facts (generally what Judge Posner is researching), judicial notice is only proper under the rules of evidence if it can be "accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned." F.R. Evid. 201. (There is no exception for "background information," although such research might meet the requirements for adjudicative facts, or be mere harmless error). Especially at the appellate level, fact research can also mess with the burden of proof, the prohibition of judges as witnesses, and the requirements for admissibility of treatises under the hearsay rule.

Some of Judge Posner's research is entirely proper under those requirements. Some is not. And unless you count the availability of a motion to reconsider, it fails the procedural requirement of Rule 201: "On timely request, a party is entitled to be heard on the propriety of taking judicial notice and the nature of the fact to be noticed. If the court takes judicial notice before notifying a party, the party, on request, is still entitled to be heard." One of the concerns about independent judicial research is the loss of an opportunity to argue that the "facts" the judge finds are wrong, or are not indisputable, or have been misapplied. In addition, Judge Posner uses some of his research to draw inferences, and that is an area where an opportunity to be heard is especially important.  In U.S. v. Boyd (the gun case) for example, research about the nature of ammunition and the location of buildings was used to infer that shooting a gun into the air at 3 a.m. in downtown Indianapolis created a "substantial risk of bodily injury to another person." In the traveling preacher case, Judge Posner drew a conclusion about the comparative desirability of speaking locations from Google's view of the college campus. The research involves not just "facts," but also inferences from those facts, and so research done at the appellate level, outside the record, with no opportunity to reply, can be particularly troubling.

But hold on a minute. . . .

When I initially researched and wrote about the issue of judicial research, I did something I had never done before, and never expect to do again:  wrote a law review article with two endings. Independent judicial research raises some significant policy concerns, and I worry about those, but there is also a powerful policy counterargument, and Judge Posner makes it in the most recent case, Rowe v. Gibson.
  • This was a case with a pro se plaintiff, and the information disclosed by Judge Posner's research could easily have been put in the trial court record by competent plaintiff' counsel.
  • The defendant's medical expert (whose views were challenged by information that can be found online, as well as by the plaintiff's own sworn statements about his symptoms) was himself a defendant
  • This was not the review of a jury fact-finding, but a question of whether a fact issue existed that should be submitted to the jury rather than resolved through summary judgment. Judge Posner's research would thus lead to a fuller fact-finding process, not disrupt one.

 To put it more broadly -- do judges need to accept a result that may be very wrong in "fact" (put even more strongly, a miscarriage of justice) even when asymmetrical party resources have severely skewed the record? Judges themselves are strongly divided on this issue, polls show. Regarding the Rowe case itself, opinion is split up the middle in an Above the Law poll (scroll down and click on "View Results"). Criminal cases may raise especially strong concerns. Seventh Circuit judge Diane Wood once noted that Internet research about street names cast doubt on a criminal conviction. U.S. v. Harris, 271 F.3d 690, 708 n.1 (7th Cir. 2001) (Wood, J., dissenting).  However, even if we want to allow research to promote accurate outcomes, the need to give the parties timely notice and an opportunity to be heard is crucial.

This policy debate is not easily resolved, and one can construct a parade of horribles on both sides.  In the meantime, lawyers would do well to take care at the trial level that important information is made part of the record.

Posted by Beth Thornburg on September 22, 2015 at 01:13 PM in Judicial Process, Web/Tech | Permalink

Comments

Judge Richard Posner is a magnificent Jurist. Call me bias, I don't care, I find him to be totally fascinating. I wish he were elected to the Supreme Court to shut Scalia down.

Posted by: TeeJay | Sep 26, 2015 10:04:38 AM

MLS,

If I understand the facts of the case right, an appointment on appeal would not have done much. On appeal, the Court had to determine whether there was any evidence to create an issue of material fact that would have prevented summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Appellate counsel has to deal with the record he's given. It seems like the real issue is not having counsel appointed at the trial level. And that's a completely different ball of yarn to unwind than what Posner is doing in response to the issue.

Posted by: A Non-E Mous | Sep 23, 2015 1:39:49 PM

Others have commented on the impropriety of Judge Posner's research (his problem has always been his arrogance, and this is just another manifestation) but in terms of the pro se litigant, it is hard to see how a proper remedy is for the judge to become an advocate. It would certainly make more sense to appoint counsel on appeal, wouldn't it? (As an aside, I would generally prefer an appointed attorney to a judge as my advocate.)

Posted by: MLS | Sep 23, 2015 11:38:44 AM

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