The Judicial Conference of the United States, the Judiciary’s policy-making body, today addressed two of its most pressing issues – a proposal to add 79 new judgeships (pdf) for courts across the country and initiatives to improve both personal and courthouse security.
“These security initiatives are necessary to keep judges, their families and staffs, and the public visiting our courthouses safe,” said Judge David McKeague. “We need to act on the lessons we learned from events of the past year,” said McKeague, who is chair of the Judicial Conference’s Judicial Security Committee, in remarks at today’s biannual session of the Conference.
Last fall, the Judicial Conference approved a package of security enhancements, including a request for legislation to protect judges’ personally identifiable information on the internet. The Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, named after the murdered son of Judge Esther Salas, was introduced last fall in both houses of Congress.
Daniel was shot and killed in the doorway of the family’s New Jersey home in July by a litigant who found the judge’s home address on the internet and posed as a courier. The judge’s husband was seriously wounded and continues to heal. The legislation had bipartisan support but was not acted on before Congress adjourned in December. The cosponsors have indicated they will reintroduce it soon.
The Judicial Conference also supported increased funding for the U.S. Marshals Service. In the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill, Congress provided funds for the Marshals Service to replace outdated security systems at judges’ homes and also increased funding for the Marshals Service Open Source Intelligence Unit, which monitors threats on the internet and dark web.
In addition to the tragic attack at Judge Salas’ home, civil unrest in the past year resulted in damage to over 53 courthouses across the country, a sustained attack on the courthouse in Portland, Oregon, and the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol. As a result, the Judiciary will be submitting a supplemental funding request to Congress that will address existing vulnerabilities at courthouses.
“These incidents demonstrated the increasing threat to our courthouses and their occupants,” McKeague said. “Our security needs require urgent attention to ensure that these types of things don’t happen again.”
With regard to judgeships, the recommendations approved today by the Judicial Conference would ask Congress to create two new court of appeals judgeships and 77 new district judgeships. The Conference also requested that nine temporary district judgeships be converted to permanent status.
Congress last enacted a comprehensive bill to increase the number of appellate and district judgeships in 1990. A total of 34 district court judgeships were created between 1999 and 2003 as part of other legislation, mostly appropriations bills. No new court of appeals judgeships have been created in more than 30 years.
Since the last omnibus judgeship bill was enacted, the caseload in the district courts had risen 47 percent (civil cases were up 41 percent and criminal filings rose 72 percent) by the end of fiscal year 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact filings. As of fiscal year 2020, filings in the courts of appeals had risen 12 percent since 1990.
Even with the decline in district court filings due to the pandemic, in fiscal year 2020, weighted filings were above 500 per judgeship in 17 of the 26 courts in which the Conference is recommending additional judgeships or the conversion of existing temporary judgeships to permanent status. Weighted case filings are a measure that the Judiciary uses to account for the varying level of resources cases require.
Weighted case filings exceeded 600 per judgeship in 14 of these courts, 700 per judgeship in six courts, and 900 per judgeship in two courts.
The 26-member Judicial Conference (pdf) is the policy-making body for the federal court system. By statute, the Chief Justice of the United States serves as its presiding officer and its members are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.
The Conference convenes twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch. The Conference conducted its regularly scheduled biannual meeting today by teleconference due to travel limitations because of the pandemic.
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