Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Public Lockout: From Deliberations by the Judiciary Committee of the Maine Legislature

All legislative committees are mandated by Maine law to conduct hearings, deliberations, and work sessions in public.

But in a May 19 speech on the Senate floor, state Sen. David Dutremble (D-Biddeford) reported that the Judiciary Committee conducted such business in private over the weekend that started May 8. Its deliberations concerned the reappointment of controversial Judge Jeffrey Moskowitz – the judge who issued an illegal gag order in January – and whose reappointment was opposed by many members of the public.

Maine citizens deserve to know what transpired that weekend with their Judiciary Committee. Did the members, in fact, meet behind closed doors and/or have private conversations in violation of state mandates? A legislative inquiry into the actions of the committee is warranted to protect the interests of the public.

Here’s what is clear: Without a single comment or question, the Judiciary Committee on May 12 unanimously recommended that Moskowitz be reappointed. One by one, each committee member simply voted yes. Those of us who witnessed this were dumbfounded. It left us with the uncomfortable feeling that something was amiss. How was their unified position reached outside of public view?

This spring was the first time in 20 years that judicial reappointments were challenged. And many citizens vehemently and passionately expressed their opposition to Judge Moskowitz, as well as to Judge Patricia Worth before him. In both cases, the Judiciary Committee nevertheless unanimously recommended approval. And at least in the case of Moskowitz, committee members allegedly deliberated outside of the public’s view and earshot.

This is extremely concerning. State mandates requiring the utmost transparency are meant to protect us all.

Input from those who are consumers of the court system – not just lawyers who earn their livings in front of judges – must be heard. People also deserve to know that the systems set up to protect them are working as they’re supposed to. When systems become about protecting themselves instead of the citizens they were designed to protect, the delicate fabric and balance of our constitutional rights is put in jeopardy. Legislative maneuvers that eliminate transparency and thereby remove public oversight are the antithesis of a democratic society.

We urge the Maine Legislature to take action and give the public answers. When asked to explain how his committee could unanimously approve a judge with no public discussion whatsoever, the chair of Judiciary Committee, Sen. David Burns (R-Washington), responded that, “it is unfortunate that some individuals and legislators have tried to impugn the integrity of the committee members.”

Hey, I’m just asking a question! There’s nothing impugning in that. These aren’t lofty, academic issues – of concern to just a fragment of society. They’re the very foundation of public trust. Transparency is the key to a free and just society.

With what’s been publicly asserted, there is a clear need for a formal inquiry into this committee’s "13 yeses" that led to approval of a judge whose illegal order brought disgrace to our state around the globe. Members of the public should be included in this inquiry.

Those who may dismiss this call for investigation, attributing it to “sour grapes” or “angry litigants,” demonstrate a lack of respect for the most essential principles that define our nation. Private meetings and/or private discussions that result in appointing a judge who attempted to abrogate the First Amendment – one of our dearest rights – should be a concern to all of us, not just those who may face this particular judge in court. It is of little comfort that the order was retracted only after the Portland Press Herald defied it.

To date, the president of the Maine Senate, Michael Thibodeau, has failed to respond to requests for a public inquiry about the actions of the Judiciary Committee.

This raises additional concerns. Without a legislative inquiry and report, Maine citizens will be left to wonder if their legislative and judiciary truly are the separate branches of government that are fundamental to freedom and liberty. We need to know what our legislators are doing – and why they’re doing it.

If you agree with me on this, We urge readers to contact their legislator and request an investigation. Let’s just find out what happened.

MeGAL is working to bring about Family Court and Guardian ad litem reform so that those in the future do not have to experience what you experienced in this dysfunctional system. As part of this reform we encourage you to contact your representative to let him/ her know the issues you experienced with Family Court. Please contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook for more information.

Other related posts:
2015-06-03 Public Access: Is the Judiciary Committee Leveling With You?

2015-05-25 Sen David Burns Replies to our Open Letter

2015-05-23 An Open Letter to Judiciary Committee on Confirmation of the Hon Jeffrey Moskowitz

2015-05-19 Senate Confirmation of the Hon. Jeffrey Moskowitz

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Public Access: Is the Judiciary Committee Leveling With You?

When State Senator, David Dutremble (D. Biddeford), in a speech form the floor of the Senate (audio) on Tuesday, accuses members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee of manipulating the judiciary re-appointment of controversial Judge Moskowitz, it is a serious charge that demands investigation. When members of the public are excluded from important committee deliberations addressing this judicial re-appointment, something is seriously wrong. When there is no response from the President of the Maine Senate when asked by numerous people to investigate further, it looks like more exclusion. All of these recent actions raise ethical and legal questions in the minds of the public. What happened between members of the Judiciary Committee in their private deliberations about Judge Moskowitz over the weekend of May 9-10th? How were their unified positions reached outside of public view? And... is this secrecy permitted by laws that insist on transparency?

On Tuesday, May 12th, members of the committee reconvened in the Judiciary Committee hearing room, and without question, conversation or comment, submitted a string of 13 "yeses" (audio), approving Judge Moskowitz re-appointment and advancing the process to the Maine Senate. It left observers dumfounded. It was one further public exclusionary action in the judicial re-appointment process, which appeared to be tightly controlled, by Maine Bar interests at every step. It is about the need for active public "oversight" of judicial appointments - or re-appointments - that have heretofore been a "rubber stamp" process in the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. In the present re-appointment situation, reporters commented on the fact that committee members asked not one question of Judge Moskowitz during the public hearing.

The entire judicial vetting process - and the subsequent handling of its piece of the process by the Judiciary Committee - raises many questions. The primary question is: "is this process, which is said by some on the judicial re-appointment committee to be standard, in the public's interest"? We ask this question with special regard to those members of the public, who have the experience of using our courts? 74% of family court matters are 'Prose' (self-represented/without a lawyers); 26% (the minority) have lawyers, yet the process doesn't reflect this compelling statistic. "Private" deliberations in the Judiciary Committee are troubling and raise a slew of ethical and legal questions. Why hide deliberations? Why the secrecy? Aren't legislative maneuvers that eliminate transparency and, thereby remove public oversight, undesirable in a democratic society? 

Since the Judiciary Committee's 13 yeses approving Judge Moskowitz, there have been widely expressed concerns that the committee appeared to be "gaming the process", using techniques, known to senior members of the committee which enable public exclusion, while following the "letter" of the laws about transparency? We would suggest a knowledge of how to bypass the law - and, more importantly its use - is unseemly (and tainted?) in anyone, especially our elected officials.

We urge the Maine Legislature to take action in getting answers to these questions. They are not academic issues of concern to a fragment of society. They are the foundation of public trust: that we can see what our elected officials are doing. There is a need for a formal inquiry into the "13 yeses" that quickly decided approval of a "controversial judge" for reasons that remain opaque to the public. Investigation of this matter should be carried out in a transparent manner with public "consumers" of the system included.

One of our concerns is about committee attitude justifying the prejudicial dismissal of all opposition. Some on the judiciary committee dismiss opponents of Judge Moskowitz as only a bunch of people who got an unfavorable result in court. This characterization justifies secrecy? Not only is this claim untrue, betraying gross prejudice, secrecy in the judiciary committee cannot be justified by theories about good or bad results in courtrooms. It is about the integrity and honesty of our government.

MeGAL is working to bring about change in Family Court and the role of Guardian ad litem. We do this by educating the public and our representatives to the issues involved with this branch of the court system. If you have had a bad experience in Family Court or with a Guardian ad litem we would encourage you to contact us at MeGALalert@gmail.com or find us on Facebook.

Previous posts regarding the re-appointment of the Hon Jeffrey Moskowitz may be found here:
2015-05-23 An Open Letter to Judiciary Committee on Confirmation of the Hon Jeffrey Moskowitz

2015-05-25 Sen David Burns Replies to our Open Letter