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September 2000

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

 

Committee Takes on Issues From Judgeships to the Workforce


Judge Dennis G. Jacobs was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1992. He is chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Resources.

Q: What are the major challenges faced by the Judiciary in maintaining its workforce?

A: In a few words: competition in a tight labor market, loyalty to the institution, and flexibility of skills and resources to respond to change.

Over the years, we have done a good job of attracting and retaining a talented workforce committed to supporting the administration of justice. Competition for excellent people is always a factor, and today that competition is keen, especially as we seek out the people who can help us make the best use of the technological infrastructure that the Judiciary is putting in place. The Committee on Judicial Resources, in conjunction with other committees of the Judicial Conference, is committed to recommending compensation, benefits, and training programs that will attract and make the highest use of the people we need. The Judiciary continues to update its networks, systems, and applications to meet changing business requirements and ensure the security and integrity of sensitive information. Success in each of these endeavors depends on maintaining a trained, stable, and flexible workforce. The Judiciary's commitment to technology is changing the skills needed by its workforce. In the last few years, we have had to hire trained systems personnel in a brutally tight labor market, and we have undertaken extensive training and support for judges and support staff so that they can use these systems effectively. One challenge is to hire people who have or can acquire the technological skills we now demand; at the same time, we need a stable workforce of people with integrity, strong institutional loyalty, and long-term commitment. Hiring and retaining such people is a tall order; we cannot expect to accomplish this without competing with the private sector in compensation and benefits, and we are going to have to accept and defend certain budget consequences of that commitment.

Immediately pressing is the crisis in the southwest border courts, where the mushrooming growth of criminal filings is exerting intense pressure on judges and clerks' offices. Automation support, training, personnel management and procurement are particularly difficult for these fast-growing courts, some in remote locations. The border courts are taking measures to cope with dramatic caseload increases. Visiting judges from other districts are helping. One successful experiment, using video conferencing and other technological aids, has been the conduct of bench trials by a judge sitting in chambers outside a district. Maybe there will be some long-term benefits from the techniques adopted to deal with this crisis, but it appears that until more help arrives the chief technique and resource for judges and clerks' offices will continue to be overwork. The Committee on Judicial Resources, through its Subcommittee on Judicial Statistics, has developed recommendations for additional judgeships in these critical places. The Judicial Conference has adopted those recommendations and sent them to Congress for consideration.

Q: How does the Committee go about developing recommendations for additional judgeships?

A: The Committee's Subcommittee on Judicial Statistics has primary responsibility for conducting surveys of judgeship needs every other year for the Committee. The subcommittee asks that each court review its workload to determine if additional judgeships are needed, and if so, to complete a judgeship survey application to justify its request. The application includes questions about the volume and characteristics of the court's caseload, the court's use of senior and visiting judges, use by district courts of magistrate judges and alternative dispute resolution, and any other factors that may have had an impact on a court's judgeship needs.

In developing a recommendation for additional judgeships, the subcommittee thoroughly studies each applications as well as the recommendation from the judicial council of the circuit, reviews current caseload information from the Administrative Office, and weighs the caseload under standards established by the Judicial Conference. After consideration of information from all available sources , the subcommittee develops final recommendations for consideration by the full Committee on Judicial Resources. The Committee reviews the report from the subcommittee and develops final recommendations for consideration by the Judicial Conference. At the end of this process, the Conference recently approved recommendations to create 63 additional judgeships, 10 for courts of appeals, and 53 for district courts. Those recommendations were transmitted to Congress in draft legislation July 31, 2000.

Q: The Committee sent the most recent judgeship recommendations to the Judicial Conference on an expedited basis. Why?

A: The Judicial Conference recommendations that were pending before Congress earlier this year were based on the 1999 Biennial Survey of Judgeship Needs, which incorporated workload information through the year ended June 30, 1998. There have been major changes in the workload of several courts since that time. Under the normal schedule, we would have completed the 2001 Biennial Survey of Judgeship Needs at our December 2000 Committee meeting, and the judgeship recommendations would have been considered by the Judicial Conference in March 2001. However, there are some encouraging signs that the Senate may consider omnibus judgeship legislation—for the first time in nearly 10 years—before the end of the 106th Congress. The Committee felt that Congress in its deliberations should be apprised of the Judiciary's requirements based on current workload rather than on the information that is nearly two years old. The Committee, therefore, expedited the 2001 Judgeship Survey and submitted final judgeship recommendations to the Judicial Conference at the end of July.

Q: Has the Committee ever recommended a reduction in the number of existing judgeships or judges?

A: The Committee has not recommended a reduction in the number of authorized judgeships in any court. We have, however, recommended in several courts that existing or future judgeship vacancies not be filled. In March 1996, the Judicial Conference approved a recommendation from the Committee to include in the survey process a review of courts in which it may be appropriate to recommend elimination of judgeships or continuation of vacancies. In approving the process for conducting these reviews, the Conference adopted the policy that elimination of existing judgeships not be recommended except in circumstances where the situation in a court is unlikely in the foreseeable future to support the need for the current number of judgeships. Although the Committee has found situations where it has recommended not filling vacancies, it has not found circumstances that would support elimination of judgeship positions.

Q: There has been a lot of talk in the legislative and executive branches about managing human capital and the need for greater flexibility in the area of compensation and benefits. Has the Judiciary given any attention to these issues?

A: Like many other large employers, the Judiciary will need to replace a large segment of its workforce over the next few years as many of its baby boomer employees retire. Now is the time to focus on the problem that the current core federal employees' benefits package is no longer fully competitive with what is available in a thriving private sector.

Employees increasingly need and demand greater flexibility in their benefits, and employers who want to stay competitive are giving employees a longer menu of benefits. The Judiciary has launched a longterm effort to that end. This year, several new programs were introduced, an employeepayall longterm care insurance program and a flexible benefit program that allows employees to pay employer-sponsored health care plan premiums and certain medical and dependent care expenses with pretax dollars. These programs do not entail an employer contribution. Even so, enrollment is unusually brisk when compared to industry averages, which indicates to me keen interest among Judiciary employees and new hires in wider benefits options. The Judiciary will continue to aggressively pursue efforts to provide meaningful competitive benefits.

Q: During the past two years, the Committee on Judicial Resources has led an enormous work measurement effort to develop new staffing formulas to cover all court unit employees in the Judiciary. Can you tell us about the processes and results of this tremendous effort?

A: The Committee has been overseeing this mammoth project over a long period. The end product, not counting the volumes of raw data and reams of charts and memos, is 11 new staffing formulas. Applying those formulas to measured workloads would yield a total Judiciary workforce requirement of approximately 22,000 employees.

The initiative was a joint project between the courts and the Administrative Office. It brought together over 30 Administrative Office staff, 149 court-unit subject-matter experts, and almost 100 court unit executives. The Committee carefully reviewed and approved the methodology and resulting formulas. Court personnel were nominated to participate in work groups for studies conducted in each of the court units: appellate and circuit offices, district, bankruptcy, and probation and pretrial services.

These groups developed and revised work center descriptions and participated in data collection. Data collection was performed at 24 district clerks' offices, 26 bankruptcy clerks' offices, and 25 probation and pretrial services offices including divisional offices. All 12 circuits were measured including all appellate court and circuit offices. Data collection was completed in November 1999. The databases were then subjected to analytical and statistical testing. Through regression analysis, staffing factors were selected to develop the formulas.

The Committee on Judicial Resources and court advisory groups were briefed throughout the process. After getting the support of all court advisory groups, and after final revisions, the reports were presented to the Committee on Judicial Resources and other appropriate Judicial Conference committees at their summer 2000 meetings. All staffing formulas were endorsed by the committees, and approved by the Judicial Conference at its September 2000 session.

Now that the staffing formulas are approved by the Judicial Conference, we will need to keep them current so that they are statistically sound, maintain their credibility with court unit heads and judges, and are defensible in Congress. To do that the Committee on Judicial Resources has directed the Administrative Office to update these formulas on a continual annual cycle in order that the Judiciary can be assured of accurate, up-to-date staffing formulas.