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September 2006

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Interview: The Challenge of Leadership in the Courts


Judge Julia Gibbons (6th Cir.), was named chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget in 2004. She was a member of the Budget Committee before taking on chair responsibilities. Previously legal advisor to Governor Lamar Alexander from 1979–81 and a state judge from 1981–83, Gibbons was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee in 1983, and elevated to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in 2002. Gibbons was appointed to the Judicial Resources Committee in 1990, and was chair of the committee from 1994 until 1999. She also was a member of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

Q: As chair of the Budget Committee, you testified in April before Congress on the Judiciary's need for a fiscal year 2007 appropriation sufficient to build on the gains achieved in FY 2006, or risk re-creating the funding problems of past years. Where does the Judiciary's FY07 funding stand nearly five months later?

A: The House has passed its version of H.R. 5576, the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia and Independent Agencies Appropriations Act, giving the Judiciary $6.063 billion in fiscal year 2007. Prior to the August recess, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of H.R. 5576, with $6.098 billion for the Judiciary. The Senate probably will not have time to take up our appropriations bill before it adjourns for the elections this fall. Thus, we likely will begin fiscal year 2007 operating under a continuing resolution and ultimately end up within an omnibus appropriations bill during a lame-duck session after the elections.

Q: At the 2006 budget hearings you said the Judiciary is approaching a crossroads in FY 2007. What did you mean?

A: I said that the Judiciary is on the brink of setting a new course that will restore its financial health, but that it will take resources and leadership to accomplish that goal.

Congress must supply the resources, but the Judiciary provides the leadership.

The leadership structure of the Judiciary is quite complex, if you think about it. In one sense, we are led centrally by judges, primarily Article III judges, with the Chief Justice at the top of the organizational chart and the Judicial Conference as our policy-making body. Other judges work on Conference committees and take part in policy development.

But we are also so decentralized that the primary source of leadership is found within the individual court unit. While judges, particularly chief judges, have a key leadership role there, they tend to focus on their dockets. Often the task of initiating action on matters large and small falls to management professionals, from clerks of court, to chief probation and pretrial services officers, to circuit executives, and to other management personnel in all those offices.

While individual courts have much discretion in the conduct of their business, they operate within limits, too. The limits include Conference policy, supervision by circuit judicial councils with respect to certain matters, and, most fundamentally in these times of budgetary restraint, resources that are less plentiful than we might like.

Finally, the Administrative Office fits into this leadership structure at many junctures. The Director has a statutory role in the Judicial Conference, and AO employees staff Conference committees, serve as information resources for courts and individual judges, make sure we all are paid on time, handle court allotments, and conduct audits, among other things. When you look at the whole picture, you wonder how it all works. Yet from my perspective, it does work—at least most of the time. And it does so by providing a framework for dealing with many of the inherent tensions in the system and for providing the right mixture of direction and support.

Q: How does the Judiciary's leadership provide that support?

A: Let's face it. When times are relatively stable, we don't feel the pressure on our leadership structures. But in difficult budgetary times where we must do more with less, our leadership approach is critical. The Judiciary is blessed with employees who are committed to the courts and the public they serve and who make do, largely without complaint, even in the face of adversity. But sometimes it is hard for us to remember the institutional needs of the whole court or the entire Judiciary. A great example of this is court requests for space. The court focuses only on its needs, not whether the system as a whole can afford the expenditure. But the Conference and its committee structure and to some extent the judicial councils provide a mechanism to look at the whole and balance the needs of all. For example, the Judicial Resources Committee regularly rejects requests for exceptions to staffing or pay policy; the Space and Facilities Committee and the circuit councils both look at space requests; and the Budget Committee routinely makes tough choices governed by considerations of what is good for all.

Q: Cost containment has been part of the Judiciary's short and long-term strategy to save money. Is cost containment working?

A: The Judiciary's cost containment effort was initiated over two years ago by the late Chief Justice Rehnquist. This is a multi-faceted endeavor examining all areas of Judiciary policy that affect our financial requirements. Originally, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference spearheaded the cost-containment initiative, and now follow-up responsibility is coordinated through the Budget Committee and its Economy Subcommittee.

Cost containment has already been of substantial benefit to the Judiciary in reducing projected shortfalls in our budget in years to come. This climate of restraint will be with us for the foreseeable future and will require all the creative and careful leadership we can muster.

Q: A Judiciary-wide compensation study is also underway. What does this study hope to accomplish?

A: As you know, most of our Salaries and Expenses account is made up of personnel costs and rent. So, making sure that we contain costs in both areas is vital. The compensation study is under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Resources Committee and includes an examination of positions throughout the judiciary—in clerks' offices, chambers, probation and pretrial services offices, and staff attorney offices. When complete, the study will provide recommendations to help us decide critical personnel policy issues.

Q: As you mention, rent is a large and ever-growing part of our S&E account. What is being done to control rent and other areas of our budget?

A: One of the most difficult issues we face is the Judiciary's effort to control the growth of rent. We have been requesting rent relief from GSA for over a year and a half, with little success. And while we have succeeded in drawing attention to the issue in Congress and have achieved some support for our position, we have also received criticism from Members. Those Members have characterized our rent problem as our own fault, brought about by our own appetite for space. Hopefully, continued persistence on the issue can bring us an advantageous resolution.

In the meantime, the cost-containment initiative and the Judiciary's emphasis on controlling the growth of rent costs gave birth to the concept that a rent cap should be implemented. The Conference charged the Budget Committee to work with the Space and Facilities Committee to develop a rent cap. As we considered the idea of a rent cap, we realized that the concept was equally applicable to other areas of the budget.

Although we are moving ahead with a rent cap first, we have also made an initial proposal about a cap for non-space areas of the Salaries and Expenses account. This proposal will be submitted to other affected Conference committees for input at their next meetings. And we are beginning work on caps for the Defender Services and Court Security accounts. We hope to apply caps for the first time when we develop the FY 2009 budget request.

The implementation of caps presents a leadership challenge for our Committee. Budget caps are a new concept, which must be carefully evaluated as they are adopted and implemented. We will have to remain committed to our overall goals but also retain the flexibility to assess objectively their usefulness. And as leaders, we must be advocates, as we convince the Judiciary that the caps are necessary components of our efforts to reduce future deficits in the Judiciary.

Q: What can the courts do to help?

A: First, the Budget Committee would like to hear from the courts about the specific ways in which budgetary constraints create a hardship in courts or diminish service to the public. Second, we are urging the courts to fill the positions that need filling. We made a convincing case with Congress about the dire straits the courts were in as a result of the 2004 budget cycle, when the courts ultimately lost 1,350 employees. For the last two years, we received enough funds to back fill those positions and do some new hiring. Yet courts have been slow and cautious to hire during these times of uncertainty. This creates a perception with Congress that our lack of hiring means that the courts do not need the help. I do not believe this to be the case.

Q: Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share?

A: I want to go back to my comments about our diffuse leadership structure and offer a closing thought about why it works. I referred to the commitment of our employees, which is extraordinary. The judges share that commitment. The reason is simple. We serve a common cause larger than ourselves, a cause that is of vital importance in our democracy—the preservation of an independent Judiciary devoted to the rule of law and administering justice faithfully and impartially. Thus, while our leadership is scattered geographically and organizationally, we are united in shared values and our mission.