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May 2009

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


An Interview with Representative Hank Johnson: Subcommittee Chair Addresses Needs of Federal Courts

Representative Henry “Hank” Johnson, Jr. was elected to represent Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District in the 110th Congress. Prior to his election, he served as a DeKalb County Commissioner, and for 12 years as a judge in the Magistrate Court of DeKalb County and by designation, he sat as a state court judge, presiding over civil and criminal jury trials. The Georgia Supreme Court appointed him to serve as a Special Master. He was in private practice for nearly three decades, where he focused on criminal and civil litigation.

Q: You are the chair of the newly renamed Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy. Does the name change reflect a change in jurisdiction for the subcommittee?

A: In the 110th Congress, the subcommittee had jurisdiction over courts and intellectual property matters, while competition matters were handled by a temporary Task Force, created in 2007 at a full Judiciary Committee level. To continue the important work of the temporary Task Force, the Task Force objectives became part of the Courts subcommittee and the Courts Subcommittee gained jurisdiction over all antitrust and competition matters. In contrast, in the 111th Congress, intellectual property matters are handled at the full committee level.

Q: What are your legislative priorities for the subcommittee?

A: My legislative priorities include delinking judicial pay from the cost-of-living adjustment that Members of Congress receive, ensuring going forward that, when the rest of the government receives a COLA that judges do also and realigning judicial pay to 2010 so that we do not preclude talented individuals from serving on the bench. In addition, the Subcommittee may consider adopting some of the recommendations of the Antitrust Modernization Commission into law, or, at the very least, holding a hearing on some of the recommendations. The Courts and Competition Policy Subcommittee also addresses matters as they arise; for example, I recently chaired a hearing on the challenges that the newspaper industy is currently facing.

Q: Your subcommittee has oversight of the federal courts. What issues have your colleagues raised in regard to the federal courts?

A: My colleagues and I are concerned about judges not receiving a yearly COLA. In addition, we hope to take up the Sunshine in the Courtroom legislation to allow the federal Judiciary discretion to have cameras in their courtrooms. In addition, Congress recently passed into law the Statutory Time Computation Bill recommended by the Judicial Conference to clarify statutory time periods under the Federal Rules. I am also planning to introduce a Comprehensive Judgeships Bill to increase the number of judges in the Judiciary.

Q: Caseload in the federal courts has increased substantially since the last omnibus judgeship bill, twenty years ago. What are the prospects for new judgeships in this Congress?

A: There is no question that our courts are overburdened and some judges cannot handle their current caseload. There is a need for new judges. To that end, I am considering two different legislative approaches. The first will be a Temporary Judgeships Bill to provide continuing support for those temporary judgeships already granted. The second would be a Comprehensive Judgeships Bill to increase the number of judgeships in districts that need them.

Q: You served for 12 years as a judge in the Magistrate Court of your home state of Georgia, and sat by designation as a state court judge. How have those experiences influenced your perception of the work of federal judges?

A: I have great respect for those who serve on the bench. I certainly recognize that our Judiciary is overburdened and deserves fair pay for the tremendous work they do.

Q: In your work as a judge you were aware of the often emotional—sometimes violent— response plaintiffs may have to a ruling. Is court security one of the issues your subcommittee will address? And, from your own experience, how do we best protect our courts?

A: I firmly believe that court security is important. Judges must be able to fairly adjudicate without fear for their safety. In the 110th Congress, Congress passed the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007, which was signed into law in 2008. Congress must act to continue to ensure that our judges are protected by adequately funding and enforcing this important law. This is one of my top priorities.

Q: Members of Congress and federal judges receive smaller cost-of-living adjustments than General Schedule Employees when they are given COLAS—and COLAS were denied in five out of the last 16 years. Shouldn’t judges and Members of Congress receive the same COLA all other federal employees receive?

A: Absolutely. Judges deserve to be paid fairly. I intend to introduce legislation that will allow for an automatic COLA to ease the financial burden on our federal judiciary simply by repealing Section 140 of Public Law 97-92, the statutory impediment that prohibits federal judges from receiving automatic COLAs. This would allow the COLA process, as provided in the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, to function as it was intended. Our failure to ensure that judges’ pay matches changes in the cost of living has increased attrition and changed the composition of the Judiciary, which now includes a lower percentage of lawyers trained in private firms. Judges are seeing the high pay that professors, law school deans, and partners at law firms are making, and realizing that serving their country as a judge just doesn’t make financial sense for themselves and their families.

Q: How might Congress and the federal Judiciary work together to improve understanding of operations and needs of both branches of government?

A: Both branches are vital to the functioning of our democracy. Congress makes the laws and the Judiciary interprets and applies them. The branches must continue to work together to ensure that our laws are followed.