Monday, October 13, 2014
On October 31, 2013 — just days before New York City’s mayoral election — three federal appellate judges, José A. Cabranes, John M. Walker, Jr., and Barrington D. Parker, Jr., hastily issued an unusual order staying two major decisions by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, which held that the New York City Police Department’s “stop and frisk” practices involved unconstitutional racial profiling. Acting sua sponte and providing no reasoned explanation, the three judges dismissed Judge Scheindlin from presiding over the stop and frisk cases altogether, summarily concluding that she had “compromised” the “appearance of [im]partiality” surrounding the litigation. Two weeks later, after their order had been widely criticized, the three judges abruptly issued a new opinion casting aside the ostensible basis for their earlier decree in favor of other legal grounds. To support their decision, the three judges relied entirely upon extrajudicial information that — by their own acknowledgment — they “read [in] the newspapers.”
In this Article, I closely examine this episode, which highlights a growing fluidity between adjudication and public discourse. With enormous amounts of news, opinion, and other information instantly available online, it has become trivially easy for judges to independently research matters outside the formal judicial record that they deem relevant to the cases before them. As a result, judges increasingly appear to render decisions based on extrajudicial sources, but without meaningful constraints or norms to guide and limit the practice. The panel’s actions illustrate the hazards in this apparent trend. Throughout the stop and frisk litigation, New York City officials relentlessly attacked Judge Scheindlin in the media for her alleged “bias” against law enforcement, but declined to actually seek her recusal. By validating and giving effect to that campaign — based entirely on what they had read in the newspapers — Judges Cabranes, Walker, and Parker openly permitted the norms of contemporary political discourse embodied in those news stories to displace the norms of reasoned judicial decision making, and unnecessarily inserted themselves into the mayoral election campaign.
Whatever the precise reasons for the conduct of Judges Cabranes, Walker, and Parker, both due process and the quality of their adjudication suffered as a result. And ironically, the three judges also thereby failed to satisfy the very standards to which they sought to hold Judge Scheindlin. The procedurally irregular and substantively deficient nature of their adjudication gave more than ample cause for reasonable observers to question the three judges’ own impartiality and propriety, and undermined the decisional independence that trial judges must enjoy to render fair and impartial decisions that are seen as legitimate across the full spectrum of the public’s diverse litigants and communities.