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.

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”

Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System

Regular readers of this blog know that I believe Judge Joan Larsen, of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, to be a prime candidate to fill the next Supreme Court vacancy should another seat open up during the Trump Administration. Late last year, Judge Larsen delivered the Sumner Canary Memorial Lecture at Case Western Reserve Law School in Ohio, and that school’s law review has just published her remarks.

The lecture is a short and valuable exposition on the often nuanced relationship between state and federal courts–something Judge Larsen knows well. I highly recommend the entire piece to the reader. But a couple of points she made struck me as particularly interesting from an organizational perspective.

Continue reading “Judge Larsen on State Courts in a Federal System”

Is the Supreme Court rethinking the federal courts’ mission?

My latest piece for the New England Law Professors blog takes a look at the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Home Depot, Inc. v. Jackson, and asks whether the Court is quietly reevaluating the mission of the federal court system.

Give it a read, and while you’re there, check out the wonderful posts by my colleagues in areas as widespread as criminal law, immigration law, and constitutional law.

Decline in jury trials the “single biggest loss” to the legal profession, judges say

At a conference at Berkeley this week, several prominent federal judges address the rapid decline in jury trials at the federal level, with Judge David Campbell of Arizona calling the decline the “single biggest loss” to the legal profession.

Law360 has a good roundup, including efforts by judges to make trials affordable and efficient again:

The trend has driven judges to try to incentivize lawyers and their clients to accept expedited litigation schedules so that the parties aren’t embroiled in protracted pretrial disputes for years, according to federal judges speaking at the event, which was hosted by the University of California, Berkeley School of Law’s Berkeley Judicial Institute and the California Law Review.

Judge Campbell said he tried giving parties the option of sending their cases to trial within four months of filing suit. At the outset, he would require the lawyers to provide their clients with two budgets: one budget that estimated the costs of “old-fashioned” litigation and another that would estimate how much it would cost to go to trial within four months, which was always cheaper, he said.

Out of about 800 civil cases, Judge Campbell said not a single one went to trial under the expedited format.  About 80 to 100 parties expressed an interest in the shorter litigation schedule, but the counter party in the case wouldn’t agree to it, the judge said. In three instances, both parties took him up on the offer, but then all three cases were either settled or dropped before trial, Judge Campbell said.

The decline of the jury trial is deeply troubling on many fronts, not the least of which is that is denies affected parties the opportunity to tell their stories in a dignified and open forum. The power behind the opportunity to be heard cannot be stressed enough — it is one of the primary reasons why courts have maintained their legitimacy as institutions.

Not every case should go to trial, of course. But too many cases settle for the wrong reasons — cost, delay, emotional toll, or the desire for secrecy. Restoring a culture of jury trials in our courts would be an important step toward restoring confidence in American democracy as a whole.

 

Wheeler on the public and the federal judiciary

Liberals frustrated with the current direction of the U.S. Supreme Court have initiated another round of Court-packing schemes. These proposals are nothing more than sound and fury for an agitated left-of-center base, but Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institute offers a typically insightful and sober analysis on a possible disconnect between the Court and the public, and what might result after 2020. It’s well worth the read.

Why the Judicial Conference is asking for more judges

Last week, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress add 73 permanent judgeships around the country. These are new judicial positions which would have to be filled, above and beyond the more than 120 existing federal judicial vacancies nationwide.

Political commentators have predictably seen this request through partisan lenses, noting (for example) that if all the requested judgeships were added and filled in short order, President Trump could “flip” the ideological composition of the Ninth Circuit. Given the current ugliness in Washington over proposals to pack the Supreme Court for partisan gain, it’s not entirely surprising that some would see the Judicial Conference’s request for more judges as having similarly political dimensions.

But the Conference must make its recommendation to Congress every two years, and that recommendation is based on hard evidence concerning the workload of the courts. Law360 has a good breakdown of the statistics behind the request, noting that nearly a third of the federal district courts have per-judge workloads that far exceed the recommended level.

It’s not clear if and when Congress will act on the request, although I certainly would not hold my breath on anything happening soon. In the meantime, the federal court system will continue to rely on internal strategies to manage its workload, including the use of senior judges and visiting judges in courts with otherwise crushing dockets.