Showing posts with label secret justice. Show all posts
Showing posts with label secret justice. Show all posts

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Grand jury secrecy is important, but not sacred

pixy.org (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

[UPDATE: As I was writing this piece on Friday, the Kentucky court released audio of the grand jury proceedings.  Read more at your preferred news outlet.]

A fight is under way in Kentucky over a grand juror's bid to speak out about what happened in the room in September when the grand jury rejected indictment for the killing of Breonna Taylor.  The attorney for "Anonymous Grand Juror #1" accuses the Kentucky AG of not telling the public the whole story.

Most of the news coverage, and some of the scholarly commentary, follows up report of the meta-litigation with a declaration about the hallowed secrecy of the grand jury and the extraordinary nature of a bid to compromise that secrecy.

That characterization slightly misses the mark.  What is extraordinary, but not unprecedented, about the case is that the bid to speak is coming from a participating grand juror, rather than an outside petitioner, such as an indicted defendant, a victim, or a media intervenor.

We should be protective of grand jury secrecy.  The grand jury is one of the few areas of American law in which our absolutist-tending free speech doctrine makes some concession to the protection of reputation, mostly to the benefit of the unindicted.  

At the same time, we should refrain from heralding grand jury secrecy as incontestable and absolute.  The tradition of grand jury secrecy inverts the presumption underlying the common law right of access to the courts.  Ample common law precedent demonstrates that grand jury secrecy is only a presumption—rebuttable, by definition. 

In 1951, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania wrote ably on the issue while rejecting a defense bid to investigate the grand jury process that resulted in indictments for bribery.

In view of the large amount of literature that has been written concerning the origin and history of the Grand Jury as one of the administrative agencies of the criminal law employed for centuries throughout the Anglo-Saxon world it is wholly unnecessary to attempt to elaborate upon those themes. Likewise there is no need to stress the vital importance of the maintenance of secrecy in regard to the deliberations and proceedings of Grand Juries, for the policy of the law in that respect has been so long established that it is familiar to every student of the law. The form of the oath of secrecy to be exacted of grand jurors was prescribed in our own Commonwealth as early as the Frame of Government enacted by the Provincial Assembly in 1696, substantially the same as it had been set forth in 1681 .... Generally speaking, the rule is that grand jurors cannot be sworn and examined to impeach the validity and correctness of their finding if an indictment has been regularly returned.

[¶] It is true that some inroads have been made upon the rule of secrecy, with a resulting number of established exceptions. Thus a grand juror has been held to be a competent witness to prove who the prosecutor was .... Or to contradict the testimony of a witness as to what she testified to before the Grand Jury .... Or to testify that the indictment was based solely upon testimony heard by the Grand Jury in another case against another person .... 

As to whether the mandate of secrecy nevertheless permits disclosure by a grand juror concerning alleged improper acts or misconduct on the part of the prosecuting officer in the Grand Jury room there is considerable contrariety of opinion in the various jurisdictions, ... which naturally results from the fact that there are obviously valid reasons to support either view. 

[¶] On the one hand, to close the doors of the Grand Jury room so tightly that the actions of the prosecuting officer therein cannot be disclosed, however flagrant and unlawful his conduct may have been and however much it may have been responsible for the finding of a wholly unauthorized bill of indictment, would be unfair to the defendant thus indicted even though, if innocent, he could subsequently vindicate himself in a trial upon the merits; it would also permit an over-zealous official to use the power of his office and his influence with the grand jury as an instrument of oppression, with immunity from investigation. On the other hand, to allow such an investigation lightly to be had would afford an opportunity to every defendant to institute dilatory proceedings and divert the course of justice from himself to an attack upon the public officials charged with administering the law and thereby seek to make them the defendants in the proceedings instead of himself.

Commonwealth v. Judge Smart, 368 Pa. 630 (1951).

I don't know enough about the merits in the Kentucky case to opine on what the outcome should be.  The AG's memo is in circulation online, but I can't find the juror's initial petition.  I expect the court to make an informed decision that balances the just cause of secrecy with the also-just cause of accountability.  

If grand jury secrecy gives way, the sky isn't falling.

The case is Anonymous Grand Juror #1 v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, No. 20-CI-5721 (Jefferson, Mo., Cir. Ct. II Div. filed Sept. 2020).

[UPDATE, Oct. 21.]  Yesterday the court ruled that grand jurors may speak publicly.  This is the statement of Anonymous Grand Juror #1.


Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Secret civil justice undermines employee rights

Pintera Studios
A story investigated by ProPublica and featured on Planet Money highlights the problem of secret justice in perpetuating the willful abuse of at-home gig workers.

I expected that "Call Center Call Out," reported by Planet Money's Amanda Aronczyk and ProPublica's Ariana Tobin, Ken Armstrong, and Justin Elliott, based on the ProPublica story, would be a sad and frustrating tale of work-from-home gig economy labor being exploited, principally by the misclassification of employees as independent contractors to reap savings in compensation, work conditions, and employee benefits.

Turns out, there is even worse dissimulation afoot.  And there are worrisome implications for the health of the civil justice system.

To work these call-center jobs, for intermediary contractors such as Arise Virtual Solutions, the not-quite-employees are compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), arbitration agreements, and class action waivers.  These all are enforceable, even when the workers do not fully understand their implications.

When a worker has the temerity to commence arbitration proceedings, challenging misclassification as an independent contractor, the worker wins.  In one example in the story, a worker easily qualified as an employee under the labor test applied by the arbiter.  A worker can win thousands of dollars in reimbursement of expenses—they have to pay out-of-pocket for the privilege of their training and then buy their own computers and telecomm equipment—and back wages to bring their compensation history up to minimum wage.  

But here's the rub: the workers already are bound by their NDAs, and the arbitration is secret, too.  So there is no public record of the misdeeds of the employer.  The arbitration-winning complainant cannot even tell other mistreated workers that their labor rights are being violated.

According to the reporters, the secret justice system of arbitration is actually part of the business model for enterprises such as Arise.  They can pay liability to a small percentage of workers while willfully exploiting most others.  Because of the NDAs, arbitration clauses, and, most importantly, class action waivers, a lawyer said in the program, she can fight this abuse only behind a veil of secrecy, one case at a time, amounting to thousands of cases, even though every case is winnable on precisely the same analysis.

There's a classic scene from Fight Club (1999) when the Narrator (Ed Norton) is telling an airliner seatmate about his car company's "formula" for issuing a recall only when it's cost effective, regardless of the cost of human life.  (Think GM ignition switch recall.)

"Which car company do you work for?" the seatmate asks.

The Narrator pauses, staring her in the eyes.  Then, nodding knowingly, he answers,

"A major one."

So what companies use these call centers to take advantage of the cheap and ill-begotten labor forces organized by companies such as Arise?

Major ones.  Ones you've talked to.

Have a magical day.

 

The stories are Amanda Aronczyk & Ariana Tobin, Call Center Call Out, Planet Money, Oct. 2, 2020; and Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott, & Ariana Tobin, Meet the Customer Service Reps for Disney and Airbnb Who Have to Pay to Talk to You, ProPublica, Oct. 2, 2020.


Saturday, May 18, 2019

Boston Globe presses high court for access to secret criminal hearings

In fall 2018, the Spotlight team at The Boston Globethat Spotlight team—published a powerful exposé on "secret courts" (limited free access) in Massachusetts criminal justice.  Now a related case, argued May 7, is pending before the Commonwealth's Supreme Judicial Court.

Julian Assange supporters' sign in front of Ecuador embassy, London, Aug.
22, 2012 (by wl dreamer, CC BY-SA 3.0).
Secret courts are the zombie of First Amendment access in the judiciary. We kill them in constitutional litigation, think they're dead, and suddenly your state courts have been infected and overrun by a whole new horde.  More often than not, new secret court systems blossom to protect the rich and powerful—infamously such as one-time GE CEO Jack Welch whilst in divorce court—from the public scrutiny that attaches to the rest of us dregs, when anyone cares to look. That correlation makes secret courts' resilience a peculiarly American counterweight to our tradition of public justice in open courtrooms.

Yet I put "secret courts" in quotation marks, because it's not clear exactly what are these secret proceedings exposed by the Spotlight team.  They're called "show cause hearings" in Massachusetts law, but even the term "hearing" seems generous.  Under state law, in the absence of an arrest, a criminally accused is entitled to a "hearing" before the court clerk to determine whether charges should issue.  That means the clerk is second-guessing police before the case actually reaches court.

This happens tens of thousands of times per year, the Globe reported.  These "hearings" are not docketed and may leave no paper trail, so if charges are not filed, there is no official record left behind.  The statute that authorizes these hearings pertains principally to misdemeanors, but may be and is used for felony charges, too, in about one in eight hearings, the Globe reported.  The statute itself does not require secrecy, but that's how the process has shaken out.  The Supreme Judicial Court approved secrecy in these hearings, likening them in a 2007 decision to historically secret grand jury proceedings.  But these show cause hearings much more resemble the California preliminary criminal hearings that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1986 must be open presumptively to the public under the First Amendment.

While the ostensible purpose of this process is to protect the reputation of accused persons while weeding out frivolous claims, it seems many clerks have turned these hearings into an ADR process.  Keeping the accused's name off the records is a bargaining chip to leverage apologies, restitution, or an informal kind of probation.  Outcomes in this vein can be positive for victim and accused; there's no disputing that.  But Spotlight also documented victims of crime and violence who felt their experiences were devalued in secret leniency.  No-charge results have proven problematic especially when emboldened accused persons have gone on to commit violent offenses.

And it's worse than that.  Because as tends to happen in secret justice, persons of privilege—wealth, political clout, social connections, mere representation by a lawyer, which is not required before charges, and maybe mere whiteness, based on disparate-impact statistics, according to Globe research—has a lot to do with what charges get weeded out without a record being made.  Moreover, the Globe reported:

The state’s 68 clerk magistrates at District and Boston Municipal courts operate with enormous discretion to halt criminal proceedings even though many have slender qualifications: About 40 percent of clerks and their assistants ... lack law degrees, one clerk magistrate did not go to college at all, and another has only an associate’s degree.

Often to the frustration of police, some clerks reject charges in big numbers.  "In 2016 and 2017, nearly 82 percent of cases never made it out of a secret hearing in Chelsea," the Globe reported.

Bills pending in the legislature would require a presumption of openness in these proceedings.  But the ACLU of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau all come down on the side of privacy for accused persons.  This is an old story; the ACLU has been torn famously over access and privacy.  I don't mean to be access-absolutist about this, either.  In my view, a big part of the problem stems from our society's overuse of the criminal justice system (read: drug crime) paired with excessive, punitive consequences for criminal-justice involvement (cf. Ban the Box).

1780 Massachusetts Constitution
In the case now pending before the Supreme Judicial Court, the Globe seeks access to records of show-cause hearings in which no charges issued.  The Globe reasons that these court hearings cannot be erased utterly from the public sphere.  That logic is backed up by the Supreme Court's 1986 treatment of California preliminaries, in which media sought records after the fact of closed hearings, as well as clear circuit precedent in the intervening years condemning secret dockets as antithetical to constitutional access to information.  The Commonwealth argued on behalf of trial courts to uphold the grand-jury analogy, reasoning that properly closed hearings yield properly closed records.

I would like to see the SJC take into account that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights is more expansive than the First Amendment.  Before the First Amendment was even a thing, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution (my italics) recognized:

Art. XVIII. A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution, and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry, and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government. The people ought, consequently, to have a particular attention to all those principles, in the choice of their officers and representatives; and they have a right to require of their lawgivers and magistrates an exact and constant observation of them, in the formation and execution of the laws necessary for the good administration of the commonwealth.

The case is Boston Globe Media Partners LLC v. Chief Justice of the Trial Court, No. SJC-12681.  Watch the oral argument online at Suffolk Law.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Death of Civil Justice: It Was a Good Run, 900 years



Opening panel at Anglia Ruskin University Sports Law 2016: Leonardo Valladares Pacheco de Oliveira, Ian Blackshaw, Tom Serby, Andrew Smith, and Antoine Duval
Last week I was privileged to attend a tremendous one-day Sports Law program at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, focusing on the question, “the future of ‘the legal autonomy’ of sport.”  Experts in the academy and in practice gave timely and informative commentary on contemporary sport governance from perspectives of contract law, politics, and dispute resolution. 

Though justifiably through the lens of sport, the program raised a broader and important question concerning the future of civil justice.  Dispute resolution in international sport today is the province of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), in Lausanne, Switzerland, under the very loose supervision of the Swiss Federal Tribunal.  CAS has a complicated relationship with international sport governance organizations such as the IOC and FIFA.  Certainly the court is not their stooge.  At the same time, through the magic of contract law, the mandatory use of the arbitration system carries down through the echelons of world sport from the IOC to the national sporting federation, and all the way to the athlete.

Transnational sport governing bodies, such as the IOC and FIFA, want their disputes handled in this single channel, because it renders them largely immune to oversight by the democratic instrumentalities of the world’s governments, especially the courts.  The transnationals have legitimate and less legitimate motivations.  They fairly worry about potential liability in multitudinous courts, each national judiciary applying its unique domestic law anchored in local priorities and prejudices.  Bypassing national legal systems, the transnationals can conserve resources for objectives in the public interest, such as sport for development and peace, and the promotion of human health and competitive achievement.  The logic supporting consolidation of international dispute resolution under one supra-national banner is the same by which the U.S. Constitution places interstate commercial disputes in U.S. federal courts, supervening the potential vagaries and favoritisms of the states.

But international arbitration has its dark side—in fact, nearly literally, as CAS operates in the opacity that typically surrounds arbitration.  Observers, including journalists and NGO watchdogs, grow frustrated and skeptical, as secrecy breeds unfairness and unaccountability.  This problem is the same that has generated angst within the United States over the “secret justice” system that has so thoroughly superseded the civil trial—see the excellent work of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in its Secret Justice series, linked from here. 

Further threatening the integrity of these proceedings, the contracts that bind parties to arbitration, and are then construed in arbitration, generally are adhesion contracts: drawn up by the transnationals themselves, weighted to their favor, and presented as fait accompli to young athletes with Olympic gold medals dancing in their dreams.  Barrister Andrew Smith, Matrix Chambers, conceded that these contracts are not meaningfully negotiated.  Their acceptance at the international level apparently marks the same phenomenon that has been documented with alarm, but as yet no serious reform, at the consumer level within the United States in works such as Nancy Kim’s Wrap Contracts and Margaret Jane Radin’s Boilerplate.

Upon my inquiry, Smith pointed out that for many reasons, athletes, given the choice, would themselves prefer arbitration to redress in the courts.  A plaintiff often desires secrecy as much as a defendant.  An expert arbiter might be more likely than a civil court to reach a conclusion that recognizes the nuances of divided merits, rather than erring in favor of dismissal as against the plaintiff’s burden of proof.  Though affordable representation for claimants has been a problem for the CAS system, organized arbitration systems still do a better job looking out for claimant’s access to representation than the usual civil court.  And most important to potential litigants are the time and costs of civil justice, often prohibitive deterrents that make faster and cheaper arbitration more appealing.

Nevertheless, panelists agreed that for the arbitration system to work fairness, stakeholders including athletes must take part in developing the process.  Conference organizer Tom Serby of Anglia Law School emphasized the need for democratization of sport governing bodies.  Smith said that organization of athletes into representative bodies is essential, noting with approval that “the United States is farther along with collective bargaining.”

With disparate levels of enthusiasm for the merits of judicial abstention, three speakers—Serby; Antoine Duval of the Asser Institute,Den Haag; and Simon Boyes of the Centre for Sports Law atNottingham Law School—all opined that national courts have been generously deferential to private dispute resolution in international jurisdiction.  Quotes from the iconic British jurist Lord Denning were offered both for and against the position.  Denning on the one hand bemoaned the courts’ relative lack of expertise in matters of private regulation, respecting the brightly formalist lines of conserved judicial power.  On the other hand, he declared, as quoted in Baker v. Jones, [1954] 1 W.L.R. 1005, “‘If parties should seek, by agreement, to take the law out of the hands of the courts and put it into the hands of a private tribunal, without any recourse at all to the courts in case of error of law, then the agreement is to that extent contrary to public policy and void.’”  Duval and Boyes mapped the ground between, where court intervention seems justified.  Boyes boiled down viable grounds to the protection of natural justice, human rights, and free competition and trade.

Incidentally the same autonomy question was taken up in similar dichotomy by Judge Richard Matsch and then the Tenth Circuit in Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc., 435 F. Supp. 352 (D. Colo. 1977), rev’d & remanded, 601 F.2d 516 (10th Cir. 1979).  Asked to intervene after an on-field altercation, Judge Matsch opined, on the “larger question” of “the business of professional football” and “the business of the courts,” that “the courts are not well suited” to allocate fault or probe causation.  For fear of excessive litigation and inconsistent rulings, any “government involvement” in the “self-regulated industry” of professional football was, in Matsch’s view, “best considered by the legislative branch”—Denning-like formalism.  Instead applying the law of recklessness to the dispute at hand, the Tenth Circuit disagreed.  Persuasive was the oft quoted reasoning of the Illinois Appellate Court in Nabozny v. Barnhill, 334 N.E.2d 258, 260—if a decision about teen athletes playing that other kind of football—that “some of the restraints of civilization must accompany every athlete onto the playing field.”

Well intentioned aspirations for meaningful athlete-as-stakeholder involvement and debate about the selective intervention of courts all gloss over the broader and more troubling trend of public, civil justice eclipsed by the private sphere.  I confess that what troubled me most about the sports lawyers’ commentaries on arbitration and autonomy was a problem beyond the scope of their charge: the disappearance of civil justice in our society at large.

Plenty has been written at the national level about vanishing civil justice and the rise of private dispute resolution.  But as the realities of globalization decree that every dispute becomes an international one—whether a youthful athlete against an international federation, or a homeowner against a floorboard makerit it seems that public civil justice is dying.  Blind deference to adhesion contracts is hastening the trend, and the courts seem plenty eager to stand by and cede power.  They purport to further the laudable aims of deference to experts or freedom of contract.  But courts have always been in the business of second-guessing professed experts, and the contemporary commercial contract is hardly a product of free choices.

Dystopian science fiction in popular culture has in recent years flourished upon an obsession with burgeoning social angst over the corporatization of public life.  In 2013 and 2014, the Canadian TV series Continuum traced the personal struggle of an anti-terrorism agent who came to doubt the virtue of the corporate-dominated future she was sent back in time to protect.  Themes of abusive corporate supremacy and submissive, corrupted government dominate the visions of current hits, such as Killjoys and The Expanse, the latter based on the novels of James S.A. Corey.  The next year will see the premieres of Incorporated, a dark Matt Damon-Ben Affleck project, and the plainly titled Dystopia, which imagines 2037: “Governments are now powerless puppets for the biggest corporations.”

Western democracy has 900 years of experience developing a public system of civil justice to patrol the boundaries of right and wrong among us.  We ought not jettison that system so readily, nor so casually.  We ought not capitulate to the conveniences of globalization, nor certainly to the burdens of transaction costs.  Would that we spend more time and energy trying to fix the public system that we have rather than ushering it into the past and replacing it with the corporatized private justice of our nightmares.