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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
You joined the FBA as a
Hill staffer 30 years ago. What drew you to an association of federal
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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?
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.”
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
What are some of the
other policy issues the FBA is focusing on today or will be addressing in the
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?
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
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
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