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December 2010

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


Committee Answers Courts' Calls for Help

Judge J. Frederick Motz (D. Md.)
Judge J. Frederick Motz
(D. Md.)

Judge J. Frederick Motz was named chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Intercircuit Assignments in 2008. He was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in 1985.

What are intercircuit assignments and how does your Committee assist in these assignments? Does your Committee also consider intracircuit assignments?

Intercircuit assignments are temporary assignments of judges from one circuit to serve in another judicial circuit. The Judicial Conference Committee on Intercircuit Assignments assists the Chief Justice with his statutory authority to temporarily assign judges and works with courts facing excessive caseloads to develop case management solutions using intercircuit assignments. The Committee assists the Chief Justice in processing requests for intercircuit assignments by: (1) coordinating the proper documentation among the lending and borrowing courts’ chief judges, judges, and clerks; (2) recommending whether the Chief Justice should approve an assignment and preparing and forwarding the designation to the Chief Justice for signature; and (3) maintaining the records of and statistics for intercircuit assignments. The Committee further assists the Chief Justice by developing guidelines regarding the use of intercircuit assignments, maintaining rosters of judges willing to take intercircuit assignments, and recruiting judges willing to undertake such assignments.

The Committee is not formally involved with intracircuit assignments, which are authorized by the chief judge of the circuit and arranged within the circuit. However, intercircuit and intracircuit assignments have the same purpose, and when a court needs assistance, the Committee will gladly work with the chief judge of the court’s circuit to provide both intercircuit and intracircuit help. I might note that my personal view is that, all other things being equal, intracircuit assignments may be preferable to intercircuit assignments for three reasons: (1) the assigned judge knows the law of the circuit; (2) the circuit court knows the quality of the work of the assigned judge; and (3) travel costs may be reduced.

Who takes intercircuit assignments? Are they always senior judges?

Intercircuit assignments are undertaken by both active and senior judges. However, senior judges undertake a substantial majority of visiting judge assignments because they have the flexibility to determine their own workloads and schedules, and are best positioned to take on assignments quickly and assume caseloads in courts outside of their own circuits. In addition, senior judges are often available to assist in other courts for longer periods of time.

Why do courts request intercircuit assignment of Article III judges? Does the type of assistance offered vary? What is the typical duration of an intercircuit assignment?

The need for assistance varies—for example, there may be an insufficient number of judgeships to handle the court’s caseload, task force initiatives may generate an increase in a particular type of case in a specific court, judgeship vacancies may exist for too long a time, the death or resignation of a judge may create a temporary workload emergency, or a number of particularly lengthy and complex cases, any one of which would create an overwhelming caseload, may have been filed. In addition, a court may have no judges who can preside over a case because the entire court has recused itself from a case because of a potential conflict of interest.

The type of caseload assistance provided by visiting judges depends on the need of the court. Several district courts seek the assistance of visiting judges to handle civil motions, while others seek judges to preside over trials or other proceedings in civil and criminal cases. In the courts of appeals, visiting judges are primarily used to participate on oral argument panels.

Intercircuit assignments to the courts of appeals are usually for periods of two or three days, while assignments to district courts are for at least two weeks. All intercircuit assignments are for a specific period or case[s], and for such time as needed in advance to prepare, and thereafter as required to complete unfinished business.

Have requests for judges to take intercircuit assignments increased or decreased over the last few years?

They have increased substantially. Two hundred and thirty-eight intercircuit assignments were processed by the Committee and approved by the Chief Justice in calendar year 2009, the highest number in the last 20 years. The increase probably is due to the fact that the Committee has become more proactive in its efforts to provide assistance to overburdened courts and because the caseloads in many courts continue to grow.

Do judges taking assignments always physically relocate to the court/district/circuit making the request?

No. With Case Management/Electronic Case Files System (CM/ECF) and the use of telephone or video conferencing, judges are able to decide motions remotely and handle matters without traveling. The use of CM/ECF makes it easier for judges to take on a few cases or even just three or four motions. Remote access also allows assigned judges to save time and money when they do travel, by facilitating short, focused visits, such as a “sentencing week,” or by hearing stacked trials.

You began a Special Work Assistance Taskforce in 2009. What is the Taskforce and why was it formed?

The Committee on Intercircuit Assignments initiated the Special Work Assistance Taskforces (SWATs) to assist courts with heavy dockets. This approach focuses on assembling teams of judges from courts throughout the country to assist an individual court facing a burdensome caseload. It has been used under various circumstances—for example to provide help to courts which have lost a judge by death or resignation, which have experienced unfilled vacancies for an extended period of time, or which have been faced with increased work because of a barrage of unexpected cases, such as the Guantanamo detainee cases that were brought in the District of Columbia.

Can judges taking intercircuit assignments replace the need for new judgeships?

No. The Committee encourages courts to consider visiting judge assistance, but realizes that doing so is only a short-term solution to workload problems and does not replace the need for additional judgeships. The use of visiting judges demonstrates to the Judicial Conference and to Congress that courts are maximizing the use of all available judicial resources before requesting additional Article III judgeship positions.

What initiatives are you and your committee currently working on?

Our newest initiative is to offer help to transferor courts to which cases are being remanded for trial by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML). Frequently, these remands present a problem because while it is important that the trials be conducted expeditiously, the transferor courts cannot schedule them promptly because of their length or complexity. Indeed, as to cases that have been pending in the transferee districts for a long period of time, the judges in the transferor districts who were initially assigned may have left the bench by the time of remand. For example, the Committee is now working to identify judges who are willing to preside over trials in asbestos cases being remanded by the JPML pursuant to suggestions of remand being made by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the transferee district. It is essential that the trials in these cases be scheduled promptly to prevent the federal courts from again becoming overwhelmed by the asbestos docket.

What are the most common misunderstandings about intercircuit assignments?

The most common misunderstandings about intercircuit assignments are that using visiting judges draws upon your local court’s budget and harms your chances for demonstrating your need for additional judgeships. The cost of the visiting judge and two staff is paid from the centrally held judges travel fund and does not affect the borrowing court’s budget. The use of visiting judges (along with the use of senior and magistrate judges) demonstrates that the court is maximizing the use of all available judicial resources before requesting an additional Article III judgeship position.

What benefits are there for using intercircuit assignments?

The use of intercircuit assignments helps courts stay current with their cases and continue to deliver the excellent service the public deserves. And now, with electronic docketing and networked courtrooms, temporary judicial assignments can be less disruptive and more effective than ever. Overall, the benefits of intercircuit and intracircuit assignments far outweigh the costs of the visiting judge program.