By Tim Cushing
Scrutiny of warrants and the judges who approve them has stepped up in Louisville, Kentucky after a no-knock raid ended in the killing of an innocent resident by police officers. The shooting of Breonna Taylor sparked protests, reform efforts, and at least one judge’s personal moratorium on no-knock warrants.
Cops don’t like to talk about their warrants. Affidavits are often filed under seal. Sometimes the seal is lifted once the warrant is served. In other cases, it takes a concerted effort and a court order to make these documents public.
Judges apparently don’t like to talk about warrants either. At least, this appears to be the case in Jefferson County, where judges signing warrants are all but impossible to identify by their signatures.[Charles] King’s was one of 231 Jefferson County search warrants executed since January 2019 and examined by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WDRB News. That review found dozens of flashy loops, “scribble scrabble,” and identical swirls derived from an electronic image file. Few judges took the time to sign their whole name. Only one printed her last name underneath her signature.
On the vast majority of search warrants — nearly 72% — the names of the judges who approved them were illegible.
The warrant that led to the raid of King’s place contained a single paragraph of narrative — one that made no mention of any efforts by officers to verify allegations of drug dealing — and an illegible signature. This makes it impossible to tell who’s approving obviously deficient warrant requests. It also makes it pretty easy to forge one, if one were so inclined.
While it’s understandable that signatures will deteriorate over time, especially when the signature is in high demand, it’s not like it’s impossible to counteract this natural declination.
Jefferson District Court Judge Julie Kaelin, takes the extra step of printing her name beneath her signature.
The reason is simple, Kaelin says — she wants to be transparent.
“It is problematic to not be able to look at a warrant and see which judge signed it,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to ever think I’m hiding behind an illegible signature.”
This judge went one step further. She proposed a set of rules for warrant approval that would have increased accountability and transparency from all parties involved.
Under the proposed rule change, which was shared with and reviewed by KyCIR, conversations between judges and law enforcement officers seeking a warrant would be recorded; only specific judges could review a search warrant request on a given day; and a judge who refuses to grant a warrant would be required to file the documents with the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk.
Judge Kaelin hopes these measures would “boost confidence in the judiciary,” which is always a good thing, especially when controversial searches are still commonplace. This would also cut down on “judge shopping” by law enforcement officers, who may find some judges more compliant (or less attentive) than others.
It appears most of the Jefferson County judiciary isn’t interested in bettering its relationship with the people who pay their salaries. Following several days of deafening silence, the Jefferson District court system finally admitted it wasn’t going to change anything about its warrant approval process.
The judges met Tuesday to consider the proposal in a secret meeting. In the days that followed, Jefferson District Court Chief Judge Anne Haynie and court administrator Kelsey Doren did not respond to repeated requests about the outcome of the meeting.
On Friday afternoon, Doren said via email that the proposal failed. Minutes from the District Court’s judges’ regular monthly meetings “are confidential,” she said. Doren did not respond to a request for an interview with Chief Judge Haynie.
So much for the presumed openness of the courts. And so much for being receptive to any incremental increases in accountability and transparency. It will be business as usual in Jefferson County, where deficient warrant requests are rewarded with illegible judicial approval. If residents are killed by cops during raids predicated on boilerplate affidavits, so be it. Who needs checks and balances when there’s a drug war to be fought?