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November 2006

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


Federal Courts Look To Contain Costs In Lean Times

Federal courts’ workloads consistently outpace staffing, posing special challenges for the Judiciary’s core responsibility of administering justice fairly and impartially. Steps aimed at containing costs have been key to meeting those challenges, according to a report delivered to Congress in late July.

“Innovation in Lean Times: How Federal Court Operations Are Changing to Meet Demands,” a report prepared by the Administrative Office, says the federal Judiciary “has changed business processes, made use of emerging technologies, and analyzed its work, always looking for more effective, efficient ways of doing business” without adversely affecting the delivery of justice.

Much of the steadily increasing workload is beyond the Judiciary’s control, a situation compounded in fiscal years 2003 and 2004 by the forced downsizing of probation and clerks’ office staff due to budget shortages. Court staffing levels declined by 1,800 positions (8 percent) between October 2003 and March 2005.

“The Judiciary is challenged in keeping pace with its constitutional and expanded statutory responsibilities,” AO Director James C. Duff said in commenting on the new report.

“While these cost-containment initiatives have helped, they are only a partial solution,” Duff said. “The courts still require additional staff to handle growing civil and criminal caseloads.”

The report discusses process improvements and innovation in both operational and administrative functions. In addition, it includes initiatives from the Judiciary’s long-term cost-containment strategy that may result in future changes and cost avoidance.

Among the operational initiatives discussed in the report is the Judiciary’s Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system, which fundamentally changed the manner in which cases are filed and managed in bankruptcy and district clerks’ offices. An appellate version of CM/ECF is due to be implemented in fiscal year 2007.

Another significant innovation mentioned in the report is the Electronic Public Access program, which allows interested parties to access court information and has “alleviated demands on clerks’ offices to provide case-related information to non-Judiciary users.”

Also discussed is use of a centralized Bankruptcy Noticing Center, which sends notices to creditors “in a fraction of the time and cost that would be required if produced by local courts.”

The report also mentions the Judiciary’s Telephone Interpreting Program, which reduces travel and other costs for the courts by providing remote interpretation in situations where qualified on-site court interpreters are not available. Likewise, the report notes that the use of videoconferencing enables judges and court staff to conduct certain court proceedings and meetings remotely, saving travel expenses and time out of the office.

Various technological developments are among the administrative initiatives discussed, including the Edwin L. Nelson Local Initiatives Program. It fosters local information technology (IT) development and information sharing through IT training; “Ed’s Place,” a website to facilitate court sharing of local development; and grants to facilitate local IT projects.