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December 2006

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


A Focus on Federal Practice: An Interview with FBA President William LaForge

William N. LaForge, an attorney with the law firm of Winstead, Sechrest & Minick P.C. in Washington, DC, is the new President of the Federal Bar Association (FBA). In his career, LaForge has been a private practitioner, a prosecutor and a deputy chancery court clerk in the Mississippi Delta, and a senior congressional policy advisor in Washington. He has been involved with the public policy arena at the local, state, and federal levels for over 30 years.

You joined the FBA as a Hill staffer 30 years ago. What drew you to an association of federal lawyers?

As a new House staffer, and as a freshly minted lawyer looking for a meaningful bar affiliation, I was looking for networking, programs and professional development, and came across the Capitol Hill Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. It had great programs and speakers, and membership gave me a sense of involvement in the early stage of my career. I was a rank-and-file member of the chapter for years and eventually got involved with its governance and committee work.

 As the new FBA president, you’ll determine the association’s mission for the coming year. What are your priorities during your term as FBA President?

I like to think of the FBA going into this next year as the new FBA. It falls to our new Board of Directors and me to implement a new governance structure put into place just last year, so that is my top priority. We use to have an Executive Committee of nine. Now we have a board of 15 that is very talented, very diverse, and very demographically balanced across the country in terms of age groups, practice fields, government, and private sector.

I have two task forces underway that I think are keys to our future. One group is actually looking at the future of the FBA and trying to “crystal-ball” our needs. It is exploring what sort of programs and policies we need to have in place to make the FBA an attractive organization for our members in the years ahead. A second task force is conducting an internal review of our sections and divisions to determine what we need to do to be able to continue providing quality service and programs to our membership.

We’re also updating our computer and communications systems, and one of my priorities for this year is to enhance our membership benefits with things like improved leadership training, more professional development, and cutting-edge programming.

The FBA is a relatively modest-sized bar, with 16,000 members nationally. We proudly count among our members approximately 1,300 federal judges. We are, by definition and by choice, the only nationwide bar association that exclusively concerns itself with federal jurisprudence, the federal court system, and federal laws. Our members are government and private-sector lawyers who focus on a federal practice.

What is the role of the Government Relations Committee in the work of the FBA?

 The Government Relations Committee plays a very instrumental role in the FBA. I was privileged to chair the committee for several years. It is actually a committee that was established 10 years ago as a broad-based panel with a non-partisan mission that gives the FBA a platform and mechanism for dealing with public policy issues, while also positioning the FBA as a credible voice with decision makers in the nation’s capital.

The Government Relations Committee is issues-oriented and helps the FBA identify, decide upon and advocate public policy issues of importance to our members and to those we serve. We use a document we call our issues agenda, compiled with input from members and chapters, sections, and divisions, that includes some 30 public policy issues that affect the federal Judiciary and lawyers who are in federal practice.
Our role in government relations is to focus on a narrow set of issues dealing with federal jurisprudence and with our federal Judiciary. I think because we bite off a manageable piece of policy engagement and don’t try to comment on and advocate policy on every issue that arises in society, we’re more effective than other organizations that tend to stake out a position on many issues. To me, that is an important key. We stick to our business and to our script.

Can you give some examples of the FBA’s current issues?

Some of the key issues on the current FBA issues agenda are judicial independence and all its various components, including adequate compensation for federal judges, courthouse security, courthouse construction, establishment of new judgeships where they’re needed, and support for a level of federal funding each year in the appropriations process that befits the greatest judicial system in the world.

Many of our issues tend to coordinate very well with the priorities of the AO. We have enjoyed and continue to have a wonderful collaborative relationship with individual judges, the Judicial Conference, and the AO. We worked closely with Director Ralph Mecham during his years, and my first official meeting after being sworn into office was with the new Director of the AO, Jim Duff. We look forward to working with Jim and his outstanding staff throughout the year.

At the beginning of my term of office, I restated the FBA’s commitment to be the natural constituency of the Judiciary. We will continue to work in Washington to support issues that are not just important to the bench and the bar and to our membership, but to the clients and the publics we all serve. One thing the FBA has done, and I think done well in the last 10 years, is to position itself as a reliable and credible source of information and an advocate for sound policy in Washington.

What was the FBA’s position on the proposal for an Inspector General for the Judiciary?

In short, it’s a bad policy idea and it would be bad law. We believe that federal judges should be held accountable for their ethical lapses, but we do not consider the establishment of an IG office as consistent with judicial accountability. There are mechanisms in place—new administrative measures and rules, computer software to cross-check financial holdings, and those sorts of things—that we think are enough. The bill would create investigatory powers that are far too intrusive and vulnerable for abuse. We see it as an affront to the traditional concept and importance of judicial independence, so we oppose the Inspector General concept.

You’re at home on the Hill, having served as chief of staff to Senator Thad Cochran and as chief counsel to a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee. What can you tell the Judiciary about how to improve its relations with Congress?

It would be presumptuous of me to try to tell the Judiciary how to represent itself on Capitol Hill, especially with leaders as capable and qualified as Chief Justice Roberts and AO Director Jim Duff. The key issues near and dear to the Judiciary are substantive and meritorious, and they should be embraced by the two political branches as well. The FBA is very pleased, as I am personally, to offer advice and assistance and to engage where possible.

I think staying the course on the Judiciary’s targeted agenda items, telling the good story that the Judiciary has to tell, and continuing to make the compelling case for a sustained, independent Judiciary, are the keys. The FBA is committed to assist the Judiciary in these enterprises in all quarters of government.

 A pay increase for judges has been talked about for many years. What do you feel is the major roadblock to a pay increase for judges? What are the prospects for a pay increase in the 110th Congress?

 Without question, pure and simple, the roadblock is Congress. The historic coupling of cost-of-living adjustments for federal judges with Members of Congress is in the way of any judicial pay increase. That link has to be broken, and there needs to be a catch-up raise provided to judges, whether it’s a percentage or an actual dollar amount. I’m confident, and the FBA feels very strongly, that eventually we’ll prevail on this. Pay raises for all top official positions in government would also be prudent, under the theory of “all boats rising.”

If there’s going to be something done, the 2007 calendar year might be the best time because the following year is a Presidential election year and everything kind of gets pushed to the back burner.

I think that we need to stay on message and be diligent in making the case for a pay increase. Chief Justice Roberts is correct when he says that the rationale for the pay raise is multiple, and that it includes a true financial need. There are judges who are leaving the bench. The shamefully low level of compensation is also a direct affront to the notion of judicial independence.

One final thought on judicial compensation: I think it would be smart for business around this country to get involved with this issue as a matter of policy. If business were to back judicial compensation, it would make a world of difference. And their reason for backing a pay raise is simple. They need to ensure that they have a fair, independent and a just court system at their disposal for disputes in commerce.

 What are some of the other policy issues the FBA is focusing on today or will be addressing in the near future?

Overall, judicial independence is a key theme that includes adequate funding for all aspects of our court system. A little more certainty and a lot more support for the Judiciary in Congress would go a long way in bolstering our vital judicial functions of government. The GSA rent and the facilities’ expense issue needs to be corrected because there is complete disparity between GSA’s treatment of the Judiciary and Executive agencies.

The authorization of permanent and temporary judgeships is an area we will continue to lend support. It disturbs us when certain Members of Congress and committees try to link legislation creating new federal judgeships with an issue such as the split of the Ninth Circuit. We think that sort of legislative linkage is very unfortunate.

 The FBA has a number of active local chapters that work closely with their respective federal district courts.  Can you discuss the role of local chapters in the work of the FBA?

Our chapters are an important component of the FBA at the heart of our organization because, unlike any other bar association that I know of, the local chapter concept is a unique feature. We have 87 chapters around the country, each with its own autonomy and independence with respect to local programming and priorities. They operate within the guidelines of our national charter, but they are able to provide tailor-made local programming and develop relationships with their local federal bench.

Our chapters are sponsoring some highly successful programming. Since taking office, I have been to a CLE program put on by three of our chapters in the western states—Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. The chief judges from the district courts of each of those states were on the program. Lawyers, particularly younger lawyers, had a chance to meet and hear judges in a setting apart from a formal courtroom. Our Dallas chapter recently put on a program bringing together federal judges and local Members of Congress. The New Orleans FBA Chapter hosts an incredible and widely-attended judicial reception each fall.

When you look at it from the top down, our chapters are also readily available to spring into action as a grassroots organization that we can mobilize to support public policy issues. When we identify a key issue, we educate the chapters, request their engagement, and then empower them to work with us from a national perspective. Similarly, the national organization can also take up the mantle for local and regional issues.

A lion’s share of the FBA’s strength and value is in our chapters, as well as in our sections and divisions. Those entities are really where our service and delivery systems meet the road to provide value and meaning for our members and those whom we serve.