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An Interview with Federal Bar President, Ashley Belleau
Ashley Belleau, a partner in a New Orleans law firm, became the Federal Bar Association’s 83rd National President in September 2010.
Ashley Belleau, National FBA President
How would you describe the relationship between the members of the Federal Bar Association and the federal Judiciary?
The relationship between the members of the Federal Bar Association and the federal Judiciary is strong, both on the local and the national level. The Federal Bar Association is fortunate to count almost 90 percent of all federal judges as members. As a member-driven organization, judges are an integral part of all the activities of the Association from serving on the national board of directors to serving as a member of the board or president of a local chapter. The ability for judges, public and private federal practitioners, and federal agencies to network and work together make for a stronger federal system. As one chief district judge said not long ago, “the Federal Bar Association is a perfect organization for federal judges.”
The FBA has been a vocal proponent for adequate funding of the Judiciary and the creation of new judgeships. Why do delays in resolving these issues and cuts to Judiciary personnel and budget concern your members?
The delays in resolving these issues and cuts to Judiciary personnel and budget concern our members because the capacity of the circuit and district courts to function at their optimal and authorized strength is being undermined. This, in turn, creates detrimental delays in the effective and prompt administration of justice. These delays cause unnecessary hardship and increased costs for individuals and businesses with cases pending in the federal courts.
The Federal Bar Association continues to work through our Government Relations Committee (GRC) to ensure adequate funding for the courts. Many hours have been spent on issues such as judicial pay, courthouse funding, court operations, and new judgeships. We have worked with many Congresses on the issue of judicial appointments. Even before the crisis in judicial vacancies, many courts were experiencing larger caseloads that continually underscored the need for new judges to lighten the load and keep the efficiency of the courts at an acceptable level.
Because so much of the federal courts’ operating budget is absorbed by personnel costs, significant budget cuts for the federal courts could result in recommendations for job furloughs and reductions in court personnel. We believe this would be an unacceptable outcome. The federal court system is bursting at the seams already. With 12 percent of Article III judgeships vacant, no new judgeships in sight, caseloads at record numbers in some courts, and more courts in emergency crisis mode than in the history of the federal court system, this creates a crisis in the Third Branch of government.
In his 2010 Year-End Report, Chief Justice John Roberts urged the political branches to find a long-term solution to the problem of judicial vacancies in critically overworked districts. How do long-standing judicial vacancies affect your members?
The Federal Bar Association’s mission is to strengthen the federal legal system and the administration of justice by serving the interests and needs of the federal practitioner, the federal Judiciary, and the public they serve. We are waging a grassroots campaign to reduce the number of judicial vacancies in our federal courts and FBA leaders at all levels—national, circuit, and chapter—have participated in the campaign.
The FBA has called upon the President, Senate leadership, and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee of both parties to hasten their work on judicial confirmations to assure that nominees who have been favorably reported out of the Senate are assured a prompt up-or-down vote in the Senate. The Association has also encouraged the President to promptly nominate qualified nominees. As a matter of policy, the FBA takes no position on the credentials or qualifications of specific nominees to the federal bench. Such action will ultimately reduce the number of vacancies to a more tolerable level.
The FBA will remain engaged on this important issue. To advance public understanding of the vacancies issue, the FBA is cosponsoring with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C, on February 28, a seminar focused on the judicial nominations and confirmations process, how it can work better, and what may lie ahead.
The Judiciary works closely with the U.S. Marshals Service to safeguard the federal courts. Do your members feel enough is being done to ensure their security as they work in federal courthouses?
Attention to courthouse security has long been an important issue for the FBA to assure that federal judges remain safe and free of fear to render justice fairly and swiftly. The FBA played a meaningful role in the enactment of the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007, which expended security protection for federal judges, court personnel, and court operations generally.
The federal Judiciary clearly needs to have adequate, secure modern facilities to carry out its responsibilities for administering justice and ensuring the safety of all participants in the judicial process. The Federal Bar Association was at the forefront of this issue after Judge Lefkow’s family members were killed in Chicago. We believed then, and believe now, that courthouse security is one of the most important issues we have on our plate.
Recent events in Tucson beg the question, “How much security is enough?” We continue to look to the U.S. Marshals Service and the courts for the answer. The FBA is committed to supporting legislation and funding that insures security for our courthouses, judges, court personnel, attorneys, and the public they all serve.
Following Supreme Court decisions in Blakely v. Washington and U.S. v. Booker and Fanfan, federal judges have more flexibility in sentencing under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. How have these changes in federal sentencing generally been viewed by your members?
These changes in federal sentencing guidelines generally have been positively viewed by our members. Equity and flexibility are most important to any sentencing guidelines. These decisions give judges more flexibility. Further, recent legislation has addressed equity questions. Whether we are talking about sentencing guidelines, judicial pay, vacant judgeships, new judgeships, or funding the courts, the FBA is vigilant at preserving the independence of the judiciary. Our founders established an independent Judiciary in the Constitution, and it is our obligation to protect and preserve the independence of the Third Branch of government.
What are your personal goals as FBA President this year?
One of my personal goals is to use the theme of Visibility, Relevance, and Value to achieve a net membership growth of 3 percent. Visibility and Relevance are integral parts of growing and solidifying the FBA as the premier bar association serving federal practitioners and the judiciary. In order to accomplish the VRV vision, the FBA is offering and highlighting additional activities and CLEs at the section, division, and chapter levels, more national CLEs, continue to enhance its new, vibrant web site, and increase communications with FBA members via e-mail and other media.
The FBA is relevant because its members, federal lawyers and judges, work together to promote the sound administration of justice and integrity, quality and independence of the Judiciary. The FBA provides opportunities for scholarship and for judges and lawyers to professionally and socially interact. Our Government Relations Committee continues to monitor and often advocates on federal issues that impact the practice of federal lawyers and the courts and keeps our members abreast of current federal issues. The FBA also promotes high standards of professional competence and ethical conduct.
The FBA’s relevance is perhaps best demonstrated by its sponsorship of important “Bench and Bar” events, continuing legal education, and social events. These events focus on issues relevant to federal practitioners and the Judiciary and provide an important bridge between federal judges and the attorneys who practice before them. Being a member of the FBA provides the opportunity for an ongoing dialogue between the federal bench and bar and networking opportunities between practitioners.
One such Bench-Bar event was held in January when we reached out to our Central District of California Judiciary members in Los Angeles. We had a face-to-face meeting with the bench and a frank dialogue regarding the critical issues facing the Judiciary. My goal is to have more such meetings. We have planned a similar Bench-Bar meeting in NYC in June.
Another one of my personal goals is to highlight the judicial vacancy situation with the President, our Senators, and the public. We are arranging one-on-one meetings with Senators and others to urge them to take more proactive action in resolving this back-log of judicial vacancies.
The FBA continues to be dedicated to the preservation of judicial independence, adequate funding and facilities for the federal courts, sufficient numbers of federal judgeships, equitable compensation for the federal Judiciary, fairness and consistency in federal sentencing, and a host of other matters.