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June 2002

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.

 

Federal Judges Take the Long View on Planning


Long-range planning is not easy work. As Lawrence P. "Yogi" Berra once put it, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Nonetheless, federal judges have a responsibility to "break out of the box in our thinking, to foresee factors and changes that will have an impact on the business of the court," said Chief Judge Charles R. Butler, Jr. of the Southern District of Alabama. "Long- range planning is a key to maintaining a court's efficiency and ensuring continued success in its work."

Judge Frederick P. Stamp Jr., former chief of the Northern District of West Virginia, agrees. "Long-range planning is the way a court determines its goals and decides the best way to achieve them," he said. "All district courts are constrained by statutes, rules, Administrative Office policy and circuit policy, but
they all still have a great degree of flexibility to adopt imaginative policies that fit their particular needs."

When the Judicial Conference adopted a long-range plan for the federal courts in 1995, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist hailed its creation as "recognition that the Judiciary needs a permanent and sustained planning effort."

"The central vision . . . is to conserve the judicial branch's core values of the rule of law, equal justice, judicial independence, national courts of limited jurisdiction, excellence and accountability," the Chief Justice wrote at the time. "This conservation provides for stability in society, but should occur in a climate of flexibility to adjust to the future needs of our nation and the limited financial resources of the federal government."

The chief judges of the nation's circuit, district and bankruptcy courts have been asked for their long-range planning ideas. "We are looking for issues to bubble up from the courts," said Butler, a member of the Judicial Conference Executive Committee. The ideas will be referred to the appropriate Conference committees.

Responsibility for planning at the national level rests with Conference committees, with the Executive Committee assigned a coordinating role. As the Executive Committee's planning coordinator, Butler leads semi-annual planning meetings where committee chairs identify strategic issues of importance that cut across committee lines and discuss how to address them in planning for the future. Their discussions have covered workload and workforce trends, long-range budget projections and the possibility of greater budget challenges in the coming years, growing security concerns, and the impact of technology on operations, functions and staff.

Butler has been impressed by the commitment of committee chairs to taking the long view when they consider policy questions within their areas of jurisdiction. "The top-notch staff support for the planning process by the Administrative Office's Deputy Associate Director, Cathy McCarthy, and Bill Lucianovic and others who work with her and who support the committees is another key factor in the success of the planning effort," he said.

In April, Butler helped conduct a panel discussion on long-range planning at the Conference for Chief Judges of U.S. District Courts. Chief Judges John W. Lungstrum of the District of Kansas, Robin J. Cauthron of the Western District of Oklahoma, and Irene M. Keeley, Stamp's successor in the Northern District of West Virginia, also were panelists.

Keeley admitted that she approached the planning process with considerable trepidation when it was begun in 1999 by Stamp, then the chief judge. "It was difficult work but we have seen tremendous progress since we began to make use of the plan," she said.

Several initiatives were undertaken even before the first five-year plan was finalized in March 2001. All of the Northern District of West Virginia judges participated as members of its Long Range Planning Committee, as well as the clerk of court and chief deputy clerk.

Also invited to help develop the plan were Bankruptcy Judge L. Edward Friend II, Magistrate Judges David L. Core, James E. Seibert and John S. Kaull, along with representatives of the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Attorney's Office, Probation Office and attorneys who practice in the district. Public input was provided through a survey of jurors.

"We decided the scope and frame-work of the plan," Stamp said.

"There's really no right or wrong way to get started, but we didn't want to get bogged down in minutiae so we identified four large categories we knew required advance planning: public and court education; automation and technology; judicial resources; and facilities and security.

"And this is very important," he added. "The first thing we did was invite an expert from the AO's long-range planning staff to meet with us and walk us through the process. They have seen a lot of these plans. They did not try to impose anything on us but were very helpful in getting us started focusing on the three fundamental questions: Where are we now? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?" Factors such as West Virginia's shifting demographics and the construction of two new federal prisons in the district were considered.

Since adopting the plan—which is posted on the court's web site at www.wvnd.uscourts.gov—the Northern District of West Virginia has, among other things, changed its systems for electronic filing and electronic access to records, updated its jury management software, established a system for empanelling a grand jury for each point of holding court within the district and modified its jury selection process.

"Our court long-range planning committee will review the long-range plan every two years and amend and update as necessary," said Stamp, still committee chair. "So the same committee that built the plan will maintain it."

Butler said the strategies adopted by the Northern District of West Virginia are "on the cutting edge, a well thought out and in-depth plan."

Only a few courts have developed such comprehensive plans.

"But long-range planning is a must," Butler said. "Initiatives like that in West Virginia-Northern give us an opportunity to delve into areas that are important to our mission, and to do so in a much more reflective, creative fashion.