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November 2009

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

 

Court Improvements, Judgeships, and Hate Crimes See Legislative Action


As the first session of the 111th Congress drew to a close, several bills of interest to the Judiciary were considered.

The National Defense Authorization Act, FY 2010
Much of this massive bill concerns the U.S. military. During its consideration, however, several provisions were added that will affect the Judiciary. The President signed the bill into law on October 28, 2009, as P.L. 111-84.

Title XLVI (Section 4713) requires the U.S. Sentencing Commission to submit a report on mandatory minimum sentencing to the Judiciary Committees of the House and Senate. The report would be due within a year of enactment of the bill, and would include a compilation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions under federal law, an assessment of their effect on the goal of eliminating unwarranted sentencing disparity, their impact on the federal prison population, and the compatibility of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions under federal law and the sentencing guidelines system established under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The report also includes, among other requirements, a discussion of mechanisms other than mandatory minimum sentencing laws by which Congress could take action with respect to sentencing policy.

Title XLVI (Section 4701) is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This provision expands the circumstances in which increased federal penalties could be imposed for hate crimes. Provisions also allow the U.S. Attorney General to assist state, local, and tribal enforcement officials in the investigation of hate crimes.

Titles XI and XIX (Section 1901) of the Act include several provisions affecting the benefits of federal employees, including one amending Section 8415 of Title 5 U.S. Code to allow federal employees under the Federal Employees Retirement System to credit unused sick leave to their total service when their annuity is calculated for retirement. Until December 31, 2013, 50 percent of all accrued, unused sick leave will be credited; after that date, 100 percent will be added.

Judgeship Legislation
S. 1653, the Federal Judgeship Act of 2009, was introduced on September 8, 2009, by Judiciary Committee Chair Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). On September 29, H.R. 3662, also called the Federal Judgeship Act of 2009, was introduced in the House by Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA ), chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy. Both bills reflect the Judicial Conference judgeship recommendation to create 63 new judgeships in the courts of appeals and district courts, convert five temporary district court judgeships to permanent judgeships, and extend one temporary judgeship. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill in September. The testimony of Judge George Z. Singal, chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Resources, is available at www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/2009/newJudgeships.cfm.

Court Improvements Legislation
H.R. 3632, the Federal Judiciary Administrative Improvements Act of 2009, was passed by the House on October 28, 2009. The bill was introduced by Representative Johnson (D-GA), with Representatives Howard Coble (R-NC), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), and Lamar Smith (R-TX). A similar bill, S. 1782, was introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), with Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), in the Senate. These bills incorporate several Judicial Conference proposals. It remains uncertain which provisions will be included in any final legislation. Specifically, the proposals would:

  • Eliminate the statutory divisions within the Judicial District of North Dakota to clarify the court’s ability to ease the travel burdens of witnesses and victims, while enabling the court to better balance the criminal caseload.
  • Adjust the disability retirement coverage and cost-of-living annuities adjustments of territorial judges, to reduce existing inequalities between them and other term judges, such as magistrate and bankruptcy judges.
  • Allow for the separate filing of the “statement of reasons” that judges issue upon sentencing, so as to better protect confidential information such as the identity of government informants.
  • Ensure that federal pretrial officers will be able to supervise fully and assist juveniles awaiting proceedings in federal court.
  • Establish an inflationary index for the threshold amount that triggers the need for approval by the chief judge of reimbursements of the costs of expert witnesses and investigators hired in representing indigent defendants.
  • Resolve a senior judge workload conflict inadvertently created by Sections 503 and 504 of the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 (Pub. L. No. 110-177) by repealing Section 504 so that senior judges would have to meet a minimum workload requirement in order to participate in the selection of magistrate judges.
  • Improve the timely collection and assimilation of wiretap data needed for the annual report to Congress by extending some reporting deadlines.