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August 2006

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


Senior Judges: Essential Volunteers Helping Federal Courts

In the federal courts, senior judges are the essential volunteers.

"Their work is invaluable," said Chief Judge Harvey Bartle III (E.D. Pa.), whose court is among those that most utilize senior judges. "Without them, we couldn’t possibly stay on top of our case-load. We pride ourselves in getting the court’s work done in a timely manner. That wouldn’t be possible without the help our 13 senior judges provide for our 22 active service judges."

The same is true for many other federal district and appellate courts. Year in, year out, senior judges—those who opted for that status instead of retiring at full pay—do more than 15 percent of the work of the federal Judiciary.

In fiscal year 2005, 322 senior district judges—32 percent of all sitting federal district judges— terminated 16.5 percent of all civil and criminal cases and conducted 17.2 percent of all trials. In the appeals courts, 91 senior judges—33 percent of all circuit judges—handled 18 percent of all participations in oral hearings and submissions of briefs.

Congress in 1919 first authorized judges to retire at age 70 after 10 years of service, and continue to retain the judicial office and perform duties in retired status. In 1948, Congress provided that judges retiring from active service would continue to receive the full judicial salary. Six years later, the minimum retirement age became 65, with 15 years of service.

Although a rising percentage of federal judges in recent years have left the bench before retirement age to earn much more money as lawyers, very few opt for full retirement instead of senior status when they are eligible.

A senior judge must do at least 25 percent of the work of an active service judge to keep staff and office space, but some judges continue carrying a full caseload after taking senior status.

Judge Jan DuBois (E.D. Pa.) is one. "I saw no need to cut back because I was just as able to decide cases, and I still enjoy the work," he said in explaining his 2002 decision. "I thought it was appropriate to take senior status so our court could receive the help of an additional active service judge."

Chief Judge James Holderman (N.D. Ill.) said that senior judges do more than just help move cases. "We are blessed with an outstanding group of 11 senior judges," he said.

"Our new judges often seek out the sage advice of these seasoned judges. In addition to their tremendous work on the cases over which they preside, our senior judges continue to contribute by their work on committees of the Judicial Conference and serve the legal community through their speaking appearances at bar association meetings, articles for publication in legal journals, teaching law students, and participating in continuing legal education programs." He added, "Each judge possesses a great deal of wisdom and experience collected through many years of service."