Annual Report 2019
At this time last year, we were in the midst of the longest government shutdown in American history. The Judiciary’s response: We went to work. We met payroll. No one was furloughed. The courts remained open. How we managed to do so says more about who we are and what the Judicial Branch does than any annual message can convey. Employees and judges in every circuit searched for existing funds that could be properly deobligated and shifted to keep operations functioning until appropriated funds were released and the properly delayed obligations could be met. The nationwide effort, coordinated by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), demonstrates our branch’s dedication to doing its work and to serving the public.
Throughout 2019, the Judiciary similarly undertook many important initiatives to ensure that the federal court system operates in an efficient, effective, and responsive way to maintain the trust and confidence of the American people. Among those initiatives, described in this report, were efforts to increase the branch’s accountability. We instituted new workplace protections, including procedures for resolving employment disputes; launched our new Office of Judicial Integrity as a vital resource in our workplace to address misconduct; and imposed rigorous and comprehensive audits on individual courts throughout the Judiciary. A motivating factor underlying all of these initiatives is our commitment to maintaining the Judicial Branch’s independence.
With regard to workplace protections, the Judiciary implemented reforms that clarify and strengthen the standards of conduct for judges and court employees. In March 2019, the Judicial Conference approved a package of workplace conduct-related provisions stating the obligations of judges and employees to report information likely to constitute misconduct. The measures also make clear that confidentiality obligations should never be an obstacle to reporting judicial misconduct or disability, and they specify that retaliation for disclosing misconduct is itself misconduct. In September 2019, the Conference approved a new model employment dispute resolution (EDR) plan that expands options for employees to address workplace conduct issues. The model EDR plan clearly defines harassment, discrimination, and other wrongful conduct.
Also, in early 2019, we opened the Office of Judicial Integrity at the AO, and the first judicial integrity officer was appointed. The office provides Judiciary employees with a source for confidential counseling, guidance, and intervention related to sexual harassment and other forms of harassment, discrimination, and workplace misconduct. All these efforts, in addition to new training protocols and other improvements, continue as part of our ongoing commitment to a professional, civil, and accountable workplace.
There were efforts on several other fronts undertaken as a matter of course and without fanfare, but they also had significant impact on the efficiency and accountability of our branch. For example, the AO completed 221 audits of court operations around the country in fiscal year 2019, all aimed at mitigating the risk of financial misstatement, fraud, waste, and abuse. And, we provided training programs in a multitude of skill-development areas, offered to new judges, to court staff, to new federal defenders, and to those who wish to improve their skills, often in coordination with the Federal Judicial Center.
Our relationship with Congress and its appropriations committees has been a very healthy one in recent years. We consistently have submitted carefully developed budget requests to Capitol Hill, with modest annual increases to fund mission-critical work, such as our initiative to bolster the Judiciary’s cybersecurity defenses. In that regard, in 2019, we continued to invest heavily in cybersecurity to protect our information systems, an ongoing priority for the Judiciary. Each year we also work to improve our work measurement formulas to base our staffing levels on rational, evidence-based estimates of the courts’ needs.
We are gratified to have established such solid footing with our appropriators. We face challenges in our fiscal year 2020 budget, however, created largely by required government-wide increases – the January 2020 pay adjustment for federal workers and increases in contributions to federal workers’ retirement plans. While we support a pay adjustment for judges and staff and a solvent retirement system, the Judiciary unfortunately must absorb most of the estimated $180 million in costs associated with these adjustments, which reduces funding available to support core Judiciary operations.
We continue to work with Congress to enhance lawmakers’ understanding of key Judiciary programs. Our Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service, for example, which provides the public with instantaneous access to virtually every document filed in every federal court, demonstrates our commitment to an open, accessible, and transparent court system. There are costs to operate and maintain the service, as well as the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system, which is the document source for the PACER service. Under the user fee structure of PACER established by Congress at its inception, we continue to try to make PACER available to the public for as low a cost as possible, or free. Beginning in January 2020, there is no charge for the first $30 in records downloaded by PACER users per quarter, a threshold that the Judicial Conference raised from $15 in 2019. As a result, 77 percent of PACER users will pay no fee, and up to 300 pages of court documents in a given quarter will be free. We also created a public user group to provide advice and feedback on additional ways to improve PACER.
Our independence as a branch of government depends not only on public trust but also on public understanding of the structure of our government. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. eloquently articulated the importance of civics education to our branch and to our country in his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. A commitment to public outreach is shared throughout the Judiciary, and there is no better illustration than the many successful civics education and public engagement programs that take place in courthouses and schools throughout the country. Judges and AO staff regularly discuss and share innovative programs and resources for increasing knowledge and understanding of the role of the federal Judiciary. We encourage innovative approaches to civics education to educate the public about the integral role our courts occupy in maintaining the rule of law.
The Judiciary responded well to unexpected challenges in 2019, as we have in the past. And we remain committed to seeking solutions to those challenges we are well aware of. Although Congress has not acted on the Judicial Conference’s new judgeship recommendations, our commitment to fair and efficient justice is steadfast. Among the unsung heroes of our branch are the hundreds of senior and visiting judges who help overworked courts meet their obligations. In the meantime, we will press our case for a new comprehensive judgeship bill, something we have not had since 1990.
The overarching objective of all these efforts in 2019 has been to maintain the public’s faith, trust, and confidence in an independent Judiciary. That is vital to our mission, and we entered a new year and a new decade as a branch in January 2020 with the same abiding commitment.
James C. Duff
Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts