Annual Report 2017
This past year, the Judiciary confronted many challenges that reinforced the importance and value of everyone in the branch working together. Our branch certainly benefits from the independence of each judge and court, and there have been many advantages to decentralizing certain court functions. Some matters, however, are most effectively addressed through a coordinated and unified approach. As Chief Justice Roberts stated in his Year-End Report, “We have a national court system that can work collectively to address challenges that would overwhelm individual courts.”
We at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) were honored that the Chief Justice recognized the extraordinary assistance provided by courts and AO staff to the courts that were hard hit by this past year’s hurricanes. Not only did the affected courts and employees play courageous roles in response, but so too did many courts, judges, and employees outside of those districts. They assisted by handling intercircuit assignments of cases, helping to monitor people on probation, and organizing collections for colleagues who lost homes or belongings. In just one example, when hundreds of prisoners were airlifted from the detention facility in Puerto Rico to a newly built prison in Mississippi, judges in the District of Mississippi volunteered to handle their hearings, on top of their regular caseloads. Federal defenders from Puerto Rico volunteered to go to Mississippi to represent the prisoners, ensuring that all detainees had the benefit of defense counsel.
The Chief Justice also stated that workplace conduct issues “warrant serious attention from all quarters of the judicial branch.” At the Chief Justice’s directive, I have assembled a working group to evaluate carefully our standards of conduct and procedures for investigating and correcting inappropriate workplace behavior. This diverse group of widely respected and well-informed individuals will produce a report to the relevant Judicial Conference committees this spring.
We are also very grateful for the unified efforts within the branch to address the novel proceedings in Puerto Rico. Judge Laura Taylor Swain from the Southern District of New York was appointed by Chief Justice Roberts to preside in fulfillment of the special, statutorily created process for debt restructuring involving a U.S. territory. An expert group of judge mediators, a magistrate judge who is assisting with discovery and other pretrial matters, and court staff in Puerto Rico and New York are supporting Judge Swain in the largest municipal debt restructuring in history.
We continue to tackle cost containment together. Now every circuit has either achieved or surpassed its space reduction target. All told, the Judiciary will save over $25 million annually in rent by relinquishing more than 3 percent of its usable square feet of space, months before our target deadline. It is our system-wide commitment to cost consciousness and prudent spending that has caused congressional appropriators to look favorably on our annual funding requests. We take seriously our obligation to manage and utilize taxpayer funds carefully and diligently. It is an approach that permeates virtually all court operations.
The Judiciary reached several other milestones in 2017. We completed a three-year, phased-in process of bringing all courts onto the same web-based financial management and procurement system. This eliminates duplicate data entry, standardizes business processes and procedures, and strengthens internal controls. This past year we also upgraded and deployed to all courts an internal controls evaluation tool that interfaces with the new financial management and procurement system. As a result, every court and defender organization can assess their compliance with specific internal control requirements. The AO staff provides ongoing training to the courts on both the management tools, as well as the most current internal control requirements.
Ongoing audits ensure the accuracy of the Judiciary’s financial statements. They also examine and report on the status of internal controls that mitigate the risk of financial misstatement, fraud, waste, and abuse. The Administrative Office coordinates a comprehensive audit program to help ensure sound financial practices are utilized. An independent firm prepares a financial statement on whether statements under review are presented fairly and without material misstatements. A committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States – the Committee on Audits and Administrative Office Accountability – oversees audit, review, and investigative assistance activities. In 2017, nearly 250 audits of the Judiciary's national programs and funds were completed.
Effective cybersecurity is another challenge we can address effectively only if we do so in a nationally consistent and coordinated way. I am pleased with the progress we have made in this area, but our vigilance must be ongoing.
Nine years ago, I established the Director’s Leadership Program with the goal of providing opportunities for court and Administrative Office staff to gain experience and learn through job exchanges and temporary duty assignments. This program continues to expand throughout the courts and the AO while reinforcing the goal of working as one Judiciary.
Ever mindful of our responsibility to serve the public, we had several noteworthy accomplishments this past year. The next generation of the federal courts’ case-management system continued to be deployed. More than half the courts of appeals are using the new system, which provides for a single login across courts and allows users to download and store pending matters on a tablet.
A new, free interactive database that provides docket information about civil and criminal cases dating to the 1970s was made available. Earlier versions of this database were used frequently by researchers and the public for studying federal court trends. The new database was developed in partnership with the Federal Judicial Center and resides on the center’s public website.
Last year, federal probation officers began using a data tool to help identify those who are most likely to commit violent offenses. The feature was added to a tool already used to assess an offender’s risk of being rearrested. With the use of these tools, probation officers can concentrate time and resources on the people who are most likely to reoffend by committing a violent crime. The AO provided training to all 94 courts. Recidivism in the federal system continues to decline.
Finally, we welcomed Deputy Director Lee Ann Bennett to the Administrative Office. Lee Ann joined us midyear and has already made great contributions to the AO and the courts. Lee Ann has spent her career working in the courts and her transition has been a smooth one. She has been instrumental in leading an internal effort to develop “One AO,” which means that, regardless of which office a person works in, we are all committed to cross-functional and coordinated efforts to provide service to the courts and the public. We are fortunate to have Lee Ann in this important leadership position.
I hope that you will take the time to read this report and provide Lee Ann or me with any feedback you may have. I am proud of the work we do at the Administrative Office and always welcome ideas for how we can do even better.
James C. Duff
Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts