March saw Congressional action on three bills of long-standing interest to the federal Judiciary.
Bankruptcy Judgeship Act of 2010
In mid-March, the House passed the Bankruptcy Judgeship Act of 2010 (H.R. 4506). This bill, which has bipartisan support, would create 13 additional permanent bankruptcy judgeships, convert 22 existing temporary bankruptcy judgeships to permanent status, and extend two current temporary judgeships. H.R. 4506 reflects the current bankruptcy judgeship recommendations of the Judicial Conference.
The legislation was sponsored by Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, and cosponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) and Ranking Member Lamar Smith (R-TX).
Cohen described the bill as providing new resources for bankruptcy courts to handle the growing number and complexity of bankruptcy cases. "A well-functioning bankruptcy system is absolutely essential to helping individuals and businesses weather our Nation’s current economic difficulties," he said. "Having a sufficient number of bankruptcy judges is a key to making the system work, and has never been more important than today." Cohen noted that Congress last authorized new permanent bankruptcy judgeships in 1992, and that it’s well past the time to address these critical needs.
The Judicial Conference recommendations for new judgeships can be found on-line at www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/2009/09Bankruptcy_Judgeship_Recommendation.pdf.
Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act
S. 1789, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, was passed by the Senate this month. The bill would reduce crack cocaine sentences to achieve a 20:1 ratio between crack and powder sentences and would eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. According to Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), who introduced the bill, this is the first time the Senate Judiciary Committee has ever reported a bill to reduce the crack-powder disparity and, he said, "It will be the first time since 1970—40 years ago—that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence."
The bill also would increase fines for certain major trafficking offenses and direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make adjustments to the guidelines to increase or decrease sentences depending on certain aggravating and mitigating factors.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Judiciary Committee, said, "For more than 20 years, our Nation has used a federal cocaine sentencing policy that treats ’crack’ offenders 100 times more harshly than other cocaine offenders, without a legitimate basis for the difference. We know that there is little or no pharmacological distinction between crack and powder cocaine, yet the resulting punishments for these offenses is radically different and unjust. This policy is wrong and unfair, and it has needlessly swelled our prisons, wasting precious federal resources." He urged the House to "act quickly so that the President can sign this historic legislation into law."
Last year, the House Judiciary Committee reported out a bill that would eliminate the sentencing disparity altogether.
Federal Judiciary Administrative Improvements Act of 2010
S. 1782, the Federal Judiciary Administrative Improvements Act of 2010, was passed by the Senate on March 16, 2010. The bill contains six Judicial Conference proposals. The House already passed a similar and more expansive bill and the differences between the two bills will need to be resolved before the bill goes to the President.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sponsored S. 1782 with cosponsors Senators Leahy and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). Whitehouse noted that the federal courts decide "crucial issues of criminal and civil law every day, providing justice and protecting our constitutional rights," and the Act would make "the technical fixes necessary for the better administration of the federal courts."
Provisions in S. 1782 would:
1. Resolve a senior judge workload requirement conflict created by the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007 by allowing senior judges who are substantially involved in the work of the court to participate in court governance matters, including the selection of magistrate judges;
2. Eliminate references to divisions in the statutory description of the Judicial District of North Dakota;
3. Allow the "statement of reasons" that judges are required to issue upon sentencing to be filed separately with the court so as to protect individual privacy and the confidential information that the reports often contain;
4. Clarify the scope of authority of federal pretrial services officers to supervise and assist juvenile offenders awaiting delinquency disposition in federal court as an alternative to incarceration;
5. Adjust the deadline for state and federal judges to file their wiretap totals with the Administrative Office and the associated deadline for the Department of Justice to provide its wiretap data to the AO; and
6. Add an inflation adjustment for the threshold requiring review by the chief judge of the circuit for case expenses related to the hiring of expert witnesses and conducting investigations for indigent defendants.