California’s federal judicial vacancies come to the forefront

With certain federal district courts operating with a profound number of judicial vacancies, court leaders are increasingly going public with the need to fully populate their benches. The most recent salvo has come from Chief Judge Virginia Phillips of the Central District of California, who wrote a letter to Senators Lindsey Graham, Dianne Feinstein, and Kamala Harris, urging them to find ways to fill the district’s vacancies.

The Central District of California, encompassing Los Angeles and environs, is authorized by federal law to have 28 active district judges. The Judicial Conference of the United States recently concluded that in fact, the district needs 38 full-time active judges to meet its workload. But the district is currently operating with only half that number (and nine formal vacancies). The last new judge was confirmed back in 2014.

The Central District has one of the heaviest workloads in the country, as measured by weighted caseload filings. Will California’s Democratic Senators and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican leadership do the right thing and fill those vacancies? As we enter another election year, it’s hard to be optimistic.

Surprise me, Senators. Do the right thing.

Grassley to return as Chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee in 2021

The Washington Times reports that Senator Lindsey Graham will step down as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in early 2021, and that Senator Chuck Grassley will again take the Chairman’s gavel. Grassley was instrumental in steering the Supreme Court nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh through the Committee.

Party politics and judicial nominations in Michigan

The Detroit News has a fascinating and distressing story about how partisan politics are influencing judicial nominations in three different Michigan courts, covering both the federal and state levels of the judiciary.

Briefly, the state has two federal district court vacancies, one in the Western District of Michigan and one in the Eastern District. The vacancies have been difficult to fill because the Senate’s “blue slip” process essentially allows the state’s two Democratic senators to block the confirmations of any Trump nominees that they do not like. In light of this reality, state Republicans and Democrats worked out a compromise: the seat in the Eastern District would be filled by current Magistrate Judge Stephanie Davis, and the seat on in the Western District would be filled by a nominee supported by the Republican establishment. The plan would have made Davis the first African-American woman nominated to the federal bench by President Trump.

The pact fell apart, however, after Trump’s Western District nominee, Michael Bogren, lost the confidence of Senate Republicans. State Republicans scrambled to find a new nominee, and seemed to have landed on state appeals court judge Brock Swartzel. In the meantime, the Davis nomination was frozen in its tracks.

Then, out of nowhere, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra offered himself up as a nominee for the Western District vacancy. Zahra is a Republican (judges run for the bench with party affiliations in Michigan), and pledged to resign from the state supreme court if Trump nominated him and the state’s Senators agreed not to oppose his nomination. The move would allow a Democrat to be appointed to the state supreme court in his place, tipping the partisan balance of that court toward the Dems.

The article calls the proposal “a neat package” which, among other things, would allow Zahra to collect a federal salary as well as a state pension. But the partisan brazenness of the proposal is appalling, at least to this blogger. How could Zahra even pretend to be impartial if he was placed in the federal bench? And what role does he see for party affiliation on the trial bench, typically the least politicized aspect of the judiciary?

It is an increasingly popular take among partisans on both sides to criticize the judiciary as politicized and biased. Those concerns start with the judicial selection process, in which the very same partisans exert their dismal control.

New bill would increase disclosures regarding federal judicial travel

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has introduced a new bill in the Senate, dubbed the Judicial Travel Accountability Act. (It has not yet received a number.) The bill would increase the financial disclosures put on federal judges regarding their travel. Bloomberg Law reports:

The Ethics in Government Act requires that judges’ disclosures include only the identity of the source and a brief description of reimbursements over $390. But judges don’t have to identify the dollar value of the reimbursement, and are exempted entirely from reporting any gifts in the form of “food, lodging, or entertainment received as personal hospitality,” Whitehouse said in a news release.

The Judicial Travel Accountability Act would require “judicial officers’” financial disclosure statements to include the dollar amount of transportation, lodging, and meal expense reimbursements and gifts, as well as a detailed description of any meetings and events attended.

The bill calls for disclosures to be filed within 15 days of a trip and to be made available on a public website. The Supreme Court doesn’t post its financial disclosures online and they are made available only once a year

In an ordinary political cycle, it would be easier to see this is as a truly bipartisan effort to promote public confidence in the judiciary, akin perhaps to the regularly introduced “Sunshine in the Courtroom” Acts that seek to bring cameras and other transparency mechanisms into the courthouse. But this is not an ordinary political cycle, and it is hard to see this bill as anything other than a political ploy. Start with Senator Whitehouse, whose public treatment of the Supreme Court has become increasingly unhinged as of late, and who chose to begin his remarks with a focus on the Supreme Court even though its Justices represent less than one-tenth of one percent of the entire federal judiciary. Then there is the list of co-sponsors: 12 Democrats (including two current presidential hopefuls) and only one Republican. It’s not difficult to see this bill as primarily an effort to turn the courts into a political football once again.

It is a dangerous thing when politicians drag the court system into their partisan squabbles, and it is in my view a significant reason why the public increasingly sees the courts as political. But while the federal courts cannot stop Congress from introducing pointed legislation, it can render such legislative chicanery moot by adopting its own reporting practices. Put differently, if the court system itself required judges to report more fully their travel junkets, rather than waiting for Congress to mandate it, courts would reap the benefits of increased public confidence and would not find themselves dragged into the political muck. More on this point in a future post.

Committee work — it’s not just for academics

With the start of its new fiscal year today, the Judicial Conference of the United States announced the chairs of several of its internal committees. Some of the chairs are new, and others are current leaders who will be retained for another year. The full press release is here.

Although the announcement is relatively pedestrian, it provides a wonderful insight into the inner workings of the federal court system. The names of the committees themselves are suggestive of the range of work that takes place outside of the eye of the general public: The Committee on Information Technology, the Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction, The Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability, and the Committee on Space and Facilities, among others.

The Committees are headed by, and mostly populated by, federal judges — the same judges that are managing complex dockets, holding trials and hearings, handling emergency motions, drafting detailed opinions, sentencing convicted felons, and otherwise addressing the judicial work that flows into their chambers daily. The Chief Justice hand-picks each member of each Committee — not just the chairs — and asks each member to take on additional administrative duties for the good of the overall court system. And like all committee work, it seems, the most effective and efficient members are asked to stay longer and do more.

Professors notoriously complain about their own committee work, which takes them away from class preparation, research, and writing (not to mention family). But most still take on the work cheerfully for the good of their respective schools. Judges are no different, and their service in this area is commendable.

Congratulations to all the new chairs.

PACER “can never be free”

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet held a hearing entitled “Federal Judiciary in the 21st Century: Ensuring the Public’s Right of Access to the Courts.” Like much of what Congress does, the hearing featured a lot of pomp and circumstance with relatively little substance. But there was an interesting revelation from U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig, who (along with U.S. District Judge Richard Story) testified before the Subcommittee on public access to the work of the federal courts. Specifically, Judge Fleissig asserted that “Our case management and public access systems can never be free because they require over $100 million per year just to operate.”

The $100 million figure was new to me. That is a lot of money. Now I suspect that the external part of that system — the PACER interface for public access — constitutes only a small part of that overall cost, and that most of the cost goes to internal case management software that the courts would use in any event. So perhaps Judge Fleissig is being a bit selective with her evidence.

Still, I am sympathetic to the statement that PACER can never be free. Someone has to pay for it–the direct users, the court system, or Congress.

I explored the PACER funding dilemma at length here. And I do not expect that a show hearing before a House Subcommittee would really explore these issues in depth. But I do hope (and expect) that someone — both in the court system and in Congress — is thinking about the PACER funding problem with the seriousness it deserves.

A dispiriting 230th birthday for the federal courts

On this day 230 years ago, President George Washington signed into law the Judiciary Act of 1789, which created our system of lower federal courts. The U.S. Constitution, ratified just a week earlier, limited its discussion of the judiciary to the Supreme Court and “such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Yet Congress wasted no time creating thirteen new federal district courts (each populated by a single district judge), and three federal circuit courts, whose judges would “ride circuit” and hear cases across multiple states.

It was not a given that lower federal courts would in fact come into existence, at least not right away. In the early days of the Republic, state courts were expected to handle most cases, and a placement on the state court bench, not the federal bench, would have been the object of desire for most judicial aspirants. But the growth of federal law after the Civil War, and especially in the twentieth century, expanded the size and importance of the federal docket and  helped transform the federal courts into key players in American law, politics, and society. Last year, the federal district courts began processing almost 283,000 new cases.

Congress did not have to create the federal court system. But having done so, it has an ongoing obligation to provide the courts with the resources necessary to ensure the proper administration of justice. That means adequate funding, adequate staffing, and adequate institutional support. Lately, however, Congress has fallen short on all three counts. Continue reading “A dispiriting 230th birthday for the federal courts”