April 2014: A Respite from Court Funding Woes

Washington Watch | April 2014
By Bruce Moyer

Over the past year, the Federal Bar Association (FBA) devoted significant attention at the national and grassroots levels to the funding crisis afflicting the federal courts. Our efforts to urge Congress to provide the federal courts with funding commensurate with their constitutional and statutory responsibilities were largely successful. All FBA leaders and members who helped to educate Congress about the importance of federal court funding deserve congratulations and thanks.

The funding picture for the federal courts has improved as a result of Congressional approval in January of a comprehensive FY 2014 appropriations measure that funds the federal judiciary at its requested level of $7.042 billion. The FY 2014 measure provides for a 5.1 percent increase in discretionary funding to the federal courts. The measure generally restores “regular order” to the funding process for government operations this year, removing the threat of a government shutdown. While moderate budget constraints will continue in some respects, court units largely will be spared the financial crisis that existed throughout the federal court system in 2013.

Judicial Vacancies Continue
Challenges to the federal courts remain, however, through the substantial numbers of vacancies on the federal bench and the pressing need for additional judgeships in high-caseload district courts. As of late February, federal benches across the nation had 96 vacancies, with 39 designated as judicial emergencies. Nearly all 80 nominees were candidates to the district court bench. President Barack Obama has named 59 nominees to the 96 vacancies. Of those presidential nominees, more than two dozen awaited Senate floor action. Most of them are holdovers from last year; unaddressed nominations from last year had to be resubmitted and clear the Senate Judiciary Committee again in this session. One nominee currently awaiting a floor vote, John Owens, would fill a Ninth Circuit appeals court seat that’s been vacant for more than 3,300 days. Another nominee, Beth Freeman, would fill a district court seat in the Northern District of California that’s been empty for nearly 900 days.

Up-or-down full Senate votes on these nominations (most of which have cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee without controversy) are expected to slowly occur, as Republicans force timeconsuming cloture votes and the use of the allowable debate time to protest the Democrats’ implementation of the “nuclear option” on judicial and executive branch nominations. Last November, Democrats unilaterally changed the Senate’s filibuster rules so that a simple majority of 51 votes could advance most judicial and executive branch nominees. Prior to this change, 60 votes were needed. Republicans have argued that the use of the nuclear option has negatively changed the Senate by limiting the minority party’s rights. Democrats have argued that the rule change was necessary to overcome Republican obstruction of qualified nominees. The FBA has refrained from taking sides in the partisan struggle over these rules. Instead, it has urged the White House and Congress to prioritize the elimination of judicial vacancies. That involves prompt action by the President in nominating judicial candidates and a prompt up-or-down Senate confirmation vote.

Judicial Vacancies Panel at Midyear Meeting
On March 29, FBA members attending the FBA Midyear Meeting had the unparalleled opportunity to hear from key Washington officials involved in the judicial vacancies issue during a panel discussion entitled “Reducing Judicial Vacancies: The Path Ahead.” Officials from the Democratic and Republican sides Senate Judiciary Committee, along with the Brookings Institution, participated in the program. White House Senior Counsel Chris Kang delivered the luncheon address. The program was sponsored by the FBA Government Relations Committee.

FBA Capitol Hill Day
We invite members to participate in FBA Capitol Hill Day on April 24, 2014, as FBA leaders from across the country meet with House and Senate offices to discuss FBA legislative issues that impact the administration of justice and the federal courts. This year, FBA delegates will speak with congressional offices about the need to fill judicial vacancies promptly and to establish additional judgeships in judicial districts with especially high caseloads. Last year more than 20 FBA leaders participated in Capitol Hill Day, and we expect even more this year.

FBA Issues Agenda
FBA leaders and members, as well as chapters, sections, and divisions, are encouraged to nominate issues for inclusion in the update of the FBA Issues Agenda. The deadline for nominations is Friday, April 4.

You can find further details about FBA Capitol Hill Day and the FBA Issues Agenda at www.fedbar.org..

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA. © 2014 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.


Connect With Us...