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June 2011

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Interview: A Committee's Cross-Cutting Perspective

Judge Julie A. Robinson (D. Kan.)

Judge Julie A. Robinson (D. Kan.)

Judge Julie A. Robinson has chaired the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management since 2009. She was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas in 2001.

Is it too much of an exaggeration to say your Committee’s jurisdiction touches on nearly every aspect of the federal court system?

No, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. The Committee’s name itself—Court Administration and Case Management (CACM)—indicates the broad expanse of issues that it is asked to consider or provide input on to other Judicial Conference committees. This wide area of jurisdiction allows the Committee to take a cross-cutting perspective and enables it to consider the impact of a particular policy recommendation on the overall ability of courts to fulfill their mission.

The Judicial Conference recently approved a pilot project to evaluate the effect of cameras in federal district courtrooms and the public release of digital video recordings of some civil proceedings. Why did CACM revisit cameras in courtrooms after the early 1990 pilot?

Judges in some federal courts indicated a strong interest in revisiting the issue of allowing taping of certain courtroom proceedings. Also, in the 20 years since the last pilot so very much has changed in technology and in providing easier public access to recorded proceedings. The steep decline in the cost and obtrusiveness of video equipment and the rise of technology that makes it easier to share video files over the internet affords courts an opportunity to provide direct access to certain court proceedings.

How does this study differ from the 1990–91 pilot?

The CACM Committee recommended, and the Conference agreed, that this pilot would differ from the previous pilot in a few ways. First, this pilot would emphasize public access rather than media access. Next, it would allow courts, rather than the media, to make recordings of civil proceedings so that the full proceeding would be available to viewers, as if they were in the courtroom.

We took this approach because the prior pilot study found that in 90 news stories of covered proceedings that were broadcast, the average amount of courtroom footage used per story was about 56 seconds. On average, reporters narrated 63 percent of all the courtroom footage with the video of the proceedings as a visual aid, rather than an opportunity for the public to watch and learn from an actual trial. We are hoping that this pilot will provide the public with a more objective experience, without the commentary or the real or imagined drama of a fleeting newscast segment about the proceeding.

Your Committee was tasked with developing guidelines for courts in the pilot project. What considerations were taken into account with these guidelines?

One of the most important considerations was the guidance provided by the Supreme Court in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger in which the Court halted the broadcasting of the Proposition 8 trial in California in early 2010 (which was before the current pilot was approved). The Supreme Court was concerned that witnesses would be discouraged from testifying because of the media exposure and the failure of the court to provide sufficient public notice before it adopted a local rule allowing the broadcasting of proceedings. The guidelines for the pilot require participating pilot courts to adopt a local rule change permitting video recordings with a sufficient period of public notice before allowing broadcasting during the pilot. No proceedings may be recorded without the approval of the presiding judge and parties must consent to the recording of each proceeding in a case.

The Committee also was concerned about privacy and security in this age of identity theft and because of the ease with which recordings can be shared today. Courts may not make recordings available to the public in which personal identifiers are disclosed or if there are any potential security or other privacy concerns. Another important guideline is that each judge has total discretion as to whether to record or make a proceeding publicly available, even if the parties have no objection.

Finally, the Committee agreed that the courts participating in the pilot should have a variety of judges willing to participate—in other words, both those who support and those who oppose cameras—but no judge in the pilot courts would be forced to participate.

And in yet another pilot program, what advantages or benefits are expected from a patent pilot program? Why was this program initiated?

On January 4, 2011, the President signed a bill into law establishing a 10-year pilot project regarding the assignment of patent cases in certain district courts (Pub. L. No. 111-349). According to the law, the pilot project is intended “to encourage enhancement of expertise in patent cases among district judges.” Although the Conference did not take a position on the legislation, the Committee monitored it closely to ensure that the random case assignment system would not be undermined and alerted the sponsor to this issue.

The legislation provides that patent cases will be initially randomly assigned to all judges in a court, with the option for any judge to return a patent case to an assignment wheel consisting of volunteer designated patent judges. The Federal Judicial Center is assigned the task of evaluating whether the designated patent judges will gain greater expertise in the area resulting in less delay and fewer appellate reversals in patent cases.

After enactment, the Director of the Administrative Office asked us to work with him on its implementation. We have recommended district courts for participation in the pilot. We also developed guidelines for the pilot that address such issues as how courts can ensure fairness in the distribution of their workload and provide for the assignment of cases to judges who do not participate to ease the burden of the designated patent judges.

The Next Generation of the Judiciary’s Case Management/ Electronic Case Files System is in development. Can you tell us something about how that process is going? Is it too soon to talk about what might change in CM/ECF?

We are still in the early stages of developing the new CM/ECF system, but I can tell you that in this first phase of the project—determining functional requirements for the system from judges, court executives, court staff, and external users—we have identified a number of ways to improve our own practices, further automate our current practices, and leverage new technologies to help us work more efficiently. One goal is to provide compatibility between all the different Judiciary automated systems to ease transfer of data between these different systems.

We are working with the entire court community and representatives from over 60 groups of external users, including the Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service, American Bar Association, state governments, and academia, to ensure that the needs of all users are considered. I am really excited by all of the proposed new functionality, from new reporting and calendaring systems that will help us better manage our cases, to new functionality that will decrease errors in docketing and improve the look and feel of the new system benefitting judges, court staff, and the public.

The entire judicial branch is focused on both cost containment and the need for adequate funding for court operations. What practices and programs in the area of court administration and case management are being reviewed with an eye toward fiscal austerity while maintaining court operations at a necessary level?

Well as we all know, the Judiciary is facing a funding crisis that may be larger and last longer than those of recent memory. In order to plan for the next few years, the Budget Committee has asked each of the Conference’s committees for cost-containment suggestions for fiscal year 2012 and beyond. Because of CACM’s broad reach, we will consider a large number of suggestions.

We will be looking at any number of cost-containment ideas both from a long-term and a short-term perspective. I should also note that our Committee has been a role model in containing costs for the programs under our jurisdiction. For example, we have consistently recommended a libraries and law books budget significantly below the rate of inflation. This has required librarians and chambers to reduce their “hard” collections, while still maintaining a robust collection. So, too, for the Judiciary’s records. The Committee has worked hard with the National Archives to press for significant changes to the records disposition schedules, resulting in significant savings for the federal Judiciary while ensuring that the federal court records are maintained appropriately.

The Committee’s jurisdiction includes issues relating to jurors. The federal court system called over 260,000 jurors last year. Are there any initiatives under consideration to improve the juror experience?

We have supported a number of initiatives over the years to improve the juror experience. A periodic statistical report on juror utilization levels has been supported by the Committee. Recently, at the Committee’s request, charts of 10 years of court specific data in a user friendly format have been sent to each district court to help them assess their efforts in more efficient use of jurors and assess how they compare with other courts in their circuit and in the nation.

In addition, we recently requested that the FJC resume its juror utilization workshop for large district courts that consistently have a high number of jurors that appear for jury duty that do not serve, are not selected, or are not challenged. The FJC has already conducted one such workshop and its success indicates the benefit of further workshops in this area. While some higher usage of jurors is inevitable because of late settling cases, notorious cases, or other unavoidable reasons, this Committee has set a target goal endorsed by the Conference to better control the number of jurors who do not participate in the process. The participating courts will provide information about their juror utilization rates in the coming months to measure the impact of implementing new practices.

What are your goals and priorities as CACM chair?

I would have to say that our priorities are the initiatives we discussed, all of which share the common threads of improving public access to, experience with, and understanding of our courts, and containing our operating costs.

As chair, my goal is to ensure that the CACM Committee continues to study and support the most efficient methods for court administration and case management in order to help the Judiciary fulfill its mission of securing the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action before us.