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April 2008

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


Judgeship Bill "Long Overdue"

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced S. 2774, a bill that would create 12 permanent court of appeals judgeships and 43 permanent district court judgeships, as well as create and extend additional temporary judgeships.

A comprehensive judgeship bill "to respond to the increasing workload of our federal Judiciary is long overdue," Leahy said, noting that the legislation had the support of the Judicial Conference and Senators on both sides of the aisle. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is the lead cosponsor of the bill, the Federal Judgeship Act of 2008.

The effective date of the legislation would be January 21, 2009.

"By providing that these new judgeships become effective the day after the inauguration of the next President, we attempt to insulate this effort from partisan politics," Leahy explained.

The last comprehensive judgeship bill was enacted 18 years ago by Congress. Since that time, additional district court judgeships and extensions for a few temporary judgeships were authorized, but no new circuit court judgeships.

"Our federal judges are working harder than ever," Leahy said, "but in order to maintain the integrity of the federal courts and the promptness that justice demands, judges must have a manageable workload."

Leahy cited statistics that show case filings in the courts of appeals since 1990 have increased by 55 percent, and case filings on the district courts have risen by 29 percent. In addition, the number of weighted filings in the district courts in 2006 was 464 per judgeship, well above the Judicial Conference's standard. The weighted caseload takes into account case complexity. The same year, according to Leahy, the national average appellate court caseload per three-judge panel approached the record number of 1,230 cases, recorded a year earlier.

"These additional judgeships would address the significant increase in caseloads that the federal courts have seen over the nearly two decades since the last comprehensive judgeship bill was enacted," said Leahy.

During his tenure as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hatch sponsored or cosponsored judgeship bills in the 106th and the 108th Congresses. He joined with Leahy on S. 2774 because, he said, "it is based on the Judicial Conference's assessment of their needs, not on backroom political deals, and it reflects the changes to the allocation of appeals court seats made in S. 378, the Court Security Improvement Act." S. 378, now Pub. L. No. 110-177, eliminated one judgeship for the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and created one judgeship for the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

"In our constitutional framework," Hatch said, "Congress has responsibility to both make the laws and ensure that the Judiciary tasked with interpreting and applying those laws has the appropriate resources. This includes addressing the staffing and compensation needs of the judicial branch, and we should strive to do so without political gambles or speculation about the outcome of a Presidential election."

Cameras in Courtroom Bill Moves in Senate

In other congressional action, the Senate Judiciary Committee amended and reported out on March 6, S. 352, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2008. The bill, introduced last session by Senators Charles E. Grassley (R-IA), Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and others, now includes some of the same new provisions as a bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee, H.R. 2128, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act of 2007.

Several provisions were added to the Senate bill not present in the House version. For example, the bill requires the Judicial Conference within six months after enactment of the bill to promulgate mandatory guidelines for obscuring "certain vulnerable witnesses, including crime victims, minor victims, families of victims, cooperating witnesses, undercover law enforcement officers or agents, witnesses relating to witness relocation and protection, or minors." The guidelines must include procedures for determining at the earliest practicable time which witnesses should be considered vulnerable, specifying that "nothing in the bill shall limit the inherent authority of a court to protect witnesses or clear the courtroom to preserve the decorum and integrity of the legal process or protect the safety of an individual."

The Judicial Conference strongly opposes H.R. 2128 and S. 352 because they would permit the use of cameras in the federal trial courts and change the present policy of allowing a court of appeals first to determine whether to permit cameras in that circuit.