This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.
National Conference Supports Judicial Interest
Judge John R. Tunheim chairs the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges
(NCFTJ), within the American Bar Association Judicial Division. He was confirmed as
a U.S. district judge in 1995, sitting in the District of Minnesota. Prior to joining the
bench, Tunheim served 10 years as Minnesota's Chief Deputy Attorney General and as
Minnesota Solicitor General. He was one of the Founders and Chair of the Government
and Public Sector Lawyers Division of the ABA. He is past-chair of the Judicial Conference
Committee on Court Administration and Case Management.
With a 3 percent increase in
the number of civil and criminal
trials in U.S. district courts in
2010, federal trial judges were
busier than ever. But trials
aren't the whole story. Can you
talk about another side of a
federal trial judge's work, such
as mediation and arbitration?
The number of trials in U.S. district
courts is edging up after what has
seemed a long period of slow decline.
In our efforts to become more efficient
and cost-effective, many districts have
adopted exceptional alternative dispute
resolution initiatives. In particular, magistrate
judges throughout the country
have become very skilled in mediating
disputes and settling cases. It is very
important for every judge to recognize
ways to make our process more efficient
and less costly. Even with fewer trials
than a decade ago, federal judges are
busier than ever and we understand
that each case is different and requires
a smart response. In the future, making
litigation much less costly and encouraging
a cost-effective way forward will
continue to be high on the agenda of
the federal Judiciary.
A recent Judiciary summit
meeting looked at ways the
courts might cope with the
current budget situation. How
are funding cuts affecting
your members? How are they
All judges are very concerned about
the uncertain budget situation. Our
state court colleagues have really been
stressed over the past several years
and it is difficult to watch the adjustments
they have been forced to make.
The Judicial Conference has taken very
appropriate action to "tighten our belts"
in anticipation of possible budget cuts.
We will continue to work within the
ABA and with the many organizations
that support the federal courts to ensure
that whatever cuts we sustain will do no
long-term harm to the federal Judiciary.
The organized bar will continue to be
our best advocates.
Judicial compensation has stagnated
in a worsening economic
climate. How does the Judiciary
continue to attract top candidates
to the bench?
The American Bar Association
has been one of our best and most
stalwart supporters in the effort to
improve compensation for judges. The
leadership of the ABA will continue to
help us in every possible way to achieve
pay increases. The reality is, of course,
that significant pay increases are unlikely
in the near future. Fortunately, federal
judgeships remain attractive to excellent
candidates. One of the initiatives of the
NCFTJ has been to develop materials
and programs to encourage talented
lawyers to consider the possibility of
seeking a federal judgeship. One of
our partner organizations, Justice At
Stake, has published an outstanding
small publication called The Path to
the Federal Bench that will be very
helpful. In our programming this year,
the NCFTJ will produce a program on
federal judicial selection that we hope
will encourage a better path forward for
the confirmation process. We are very
concerned that the well-documented
difficulties in the confirmation process
discourage strong candidates from
The NCFTJ has an interest in
promoting improvements in the
administration of the jury system.
Is it difficult to get jurors
to serve? What improvements
might be needed in this area?
I don't think that it has reached the
point where I would consider it difficult
to get jurors to serve. Jurors may still
sigh and complain when they receive a
summons, but those who are selected
to serve are highly complimentary of the
process and the respect they receive.
Juror utilization is the key. The more
jurors who are called in who receive
the opportunity to serve on a jury, the
better our process is. We also need
to be friendly, attentive, and helpful,
and be constantly aware that we are
imposing on jurors' time, on their busy
lives. Delays need to be kept to an
absolute minimum. I would also like to
see further increases in juror compensation,
but that likely will not be on
Congress' agenda in the near future.
Technology plays an increasing
role in the modern courtroom.
What does that mean for
both the courts and law firms?
Is there a way for courts to
encourage a better tech interface
with law firms?
Technology in our courtrooms
not only saves time and costs, but
jurors have come to expect the
experience of seeing an exhibit on
their screens as soon as the exhibit is
admitted. Today's juror learns from
computer screens and television,
and replicating that experience in the
courtroom adds so much to jurors'
ability to comprehend and understand
evidence. Technology also adds significantly
to attorneys' ability to clearly
present their cases. It is especially
helpful for organization of many of our
document-laden complex civil and
criminal trials. What lawyers want is
technology that works and as courts,
we need to take advantage of the latest
technology and we need to provide an
easy interface with lawyer's laptops. I
am especially excited about the many
planned technological leaps in the
Next Generation Case Management/
Electronic Case Files System project
which is in progress. The many new
case management tools planned for the
new system will represent the use of
technology at its best.
Newspaper articles increasingly
talk about "mistrial by Google,"
with jurors viewing on-line
information about defendants,
witnesses and criminal procedures.
Is this a concern for federal
trial judges and what can
be done about the problem?
The ability that jurors have today to
investigate and view information on-line
is a significant concern for all judges
who preside over jury trials. I hope it
does not affect the willingness of parties
to participate in jury trials because I
know that many judges, including me,
believe that presiding over jury trials is
one of the most interesting parts of our
jobs. The best antidote is to continually
remind jurors from start to finish of
trials that they are not to conduct any
research about the case, the defendants,
witnesses, or any parties. Further,
it is important to remind them to
inform the court if they are aware that
a fellow juror is doing outside research.
I reassure them that they will have all
the information they need to make a
decision and it would violate an individual's
right to a fair trial if they learn any
information outside the courtroom. For
jurors who are curious, I tell them that
they can research all they want after
the trial is complete and their verdict is
accepted. Fortunately, I have not had a
problem yet with "mistrial by Google."
Federal judges have once
again come under attack for
their judicial decisions. Is the
NCFTJ concerned about these
attacks? What is the best way to
respond to these attacks and to
ensure judicial independence?
Attacks on judicial decisions are
as old as the Republic and likely will
continue. It comes with the territory
and, while tempting, it is best not to
overreact. We need to be ever vigilant
to make sure that the attacks do not
undermine respect for the Judiciary.
But judges surely are not in the best
position to respond. That is why we
really need organizations like the
American Bar Association and so many
other organizations that are concerned
with judicial independence. The NCFTJ
is the best way for federal judges to
participate with the bar and to show our
appreciation for the strong support that
What are your priorities as
chair of the TCFTJ?
Our most important priority is
increasing the membership of federal
judges in the ABA. I have always
believed that it is vitally important
for judges to work closely with the
organized bar, and it is especially
important today with funding challenges
facing the Judiciary. Without question,
the organized bar is our strongest
support when the Judiciary is under
attack. The NCFTJ also works closely
with the ABA's Congressional advocacy.
We will also continue to develop interesting
and lively programming for
judges and lawyers.