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.

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.

The PACER class action and the problem of court funding

Which is the best model for charging for access to court records: a rest stop, a bus pass, or a bake sale?

What (if anything) should the judiciary charge for public access to records, and how should that decision be made? That question is now squarely facing the federal courts and Congress.

I have blogged periodically about the 2016 class action lawsuit alleging that the federal courts overcharged users for access to its electronic public records system (known as PACER), and used the surplus to fund a variety of internal projects. Last spring, a federal district judge granted partial summary judgment to the defendants as to liability, but concluded that some of the project funding had indeed exceeded Congressional authorization. The decision is now on appeal.

Although no decision will be coming for a while, a number of recent events have returned the case to the public eye. In late January, several prominent, retired federal judges filed an amicus brief arguing that the courts should not charge any fees for public access to court records. That brief led to a story in the New Republic entitled “The Courts Are Making a Killing on Public Records.” All the while, the five-week federal government shutdown forced the courts to use up all of their “rainy day” resources and put them on the verge of operating without funding, illustrating the relative financial fragility of the courts as an organization.

I take as a given that the federal court system, as a whole, is committed to providing public access for all. But it is also a given that on an organizational level, the court system feels an obligation to protect its core activities from environmental disruption, including financial disruption. The current lawsuit provides an excellent illustration of the underlying tension between those values, and also suggests a solution. More below. Continue reading “The PACER class action and the problem of court funding”

Chief Justice releases Year-End Report

Per tradition, at 6 p.m. EST on December 31, Chief Justice John Roberts released his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Each year, the report focuses on one specific topic. For 2018, the topic–appropriately–was the work of the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct.

Many have already focused on the #MeToo aspect of this year’s report. I want to highlight something a bit different. Far beyond discussing the specific outcomes of the Working Group’s activities, Roberts spent quite a bit of time discussing the internal mechanisms by which the Working Group’s suggestions were implemented. He highlighted the roles of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and the various Judicial Conference subcommittees that studied and implemented the Working Group’s recommendations. The enduring image is one of a slow, careful, and multi-layered process–exactly the image the Chief Justice was likely aiming for.

Although it never goes on for more than a few pages, the Year-End Report may be the most deliberately written document that the Chief Justice writes all year. One has the sense that every word had been carefully and repeatedly vetted. That the Chief would dedicate significant space to describing (even at a high level) the federal courts’ internal committee work is telling, and a welcome development for students of court organization.

Happy New Year to all.

Federal courts announce recommendations for workplace changes

The Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group, formed in the aftermath of the Alex Kozinski scandal, has issued its report and recommendations.

From the press release:

The recommendations include clarifying workplace standards and communications about how employees can raise formal complaints, removing barriers to reporting complaints, providing additional and less formal avenues for employees to seek expert advice and assistance on workplace conduct issues, and utilizing enhanced training on these subjects for judges and employees.

Several recommendations of the Working Group have already been implemented or are underway, such as clarifying that confidentiality rules in the Judiciary do not prevent law clerks or employees from reporting misconduct by judges. Many of the report’s recommendations require further action by the Judicial Conference.

The entire report can be found here.

New research on the organizational role of court rulemaking

Flickr_-_USCapitol_-_Thurgood_Marshall_Federal_Judiciary_Building

I am delighted to announce that my new article, The Federal Courts’ Rulemaking Buffer, is now available on SSRNPlease download it early and often!

The article arose in response to two perplexing questions about the federal court system’s civil rulemaking process. First, why do the courts engage in rulemaking at all? The courts pride themselves on being highly efficient and countermajoritarian, but rulemaking is time-consuming, quasi-democratic, and policy-driven. Making rules by committee, then, seems particularly unsuited to the work of the judicial branch.

Second, why have the courts made the rulemaking process more complicated over time? Initially, the entire work of formulating and amending rules was assigned to a single committee. Today, the rulemaking process must navigate at least five levels of the court system hierarchy, with additional opportunities for public and special interest input. As a result, amending a single rule often taken three to five years.

So what gives? Why would the courts embrace a task outside of their expertise, and then make it more and more complex?

The article offers an explanation to both questions that is grounded in organizational theory. I explain that the court system initially developed the rulemaking process as a buffer, to protect its core work from the instability of its larger environment. The power to make procedural rules gives allows the court system to respond to a drop in resources, or a surge in cases, without the entire judicial process grinding to a halt. But the rulemaking process also requires external legitimacy to function, and when that legitimacy has been challenged from time to time, the courts have responded by making the process more open, complex, and transparent.

The article touches on many of themes of this blog, including the federal court system’s resource dependence, neoinstitutional theory, and the influential role of other organizations (such as executive agencies, the ABA, and Congress) in altering court-centered rulemaking over time. And it features appearances from William Howard Taft, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, Roscoe Pound, Tom Clark, and others.

The article will be formally published in the William & Mary Law Review later this year. I welcome any thoughts from readers, privately or in the comments.

Pictured: Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building

Ohio federal judge sues Judicial Conference over order to undergo mental health evaluation

United States District Judge John Adams, of the Northern District of Ohio, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Judicial Conference of the United States and the Sixth Circuit Judicial Council. The suit stems from the Sixth Circuit Judicial Council’s insistence that Adams undergo a mental evaluation last month after he exhibited increasingly erratic behavior on the bench.

Judge Adams argues that the order to undergo the evaluation, which is rooted in the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980, is an unconstitutional violation of his liberty interest.

Most attention paid to this case will focus on Judge Adams’s own behavior on and off the bench, as well as larger questions regarding the independence of a life-tenured judiciary. But an equally interesting dimension will be the personal stake of the federal judge hearing the case. That judge will be asked to determine the constitutionality of a statute that covers his own employment, and the breadth of the power of the Judicial Conference that oversees his work. How the ultimate decision is couched, and how much of the judge’s thought process is revealed, will be interesting to follow.