Federal trial judges may start doubling up to reduce the need for courtroom space at a time when budgets are tight and fewer cases go to trial. The Judicial Conference, the policy-making body of the federal judiciary, took baby steps in that direction at its fall closed-door meeting at the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The conference agreed that in future court construction, every two senior judges will have to share a single courtroom. Similar court-sharing will be considered for magistrate and bankruptcy judges, as well as nonsenior trial judges in larger courthouses. The policy for senior judges may have limited impact, since little new courthouse construction is planned in the near future.
Anthony Scirica, chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said at a press conference following the meeting that the move toward shared courtrooms was part of the judiciary's ongoing cost containment efforts and a response to congressional pressure to find ways to "use courtrooms effectively."
Scirica, who chairs the conference's executive committee, also acknowledged that the number of trials is dropping, with many cases settling or being diverted to private arbitration. In an article in the law review Green Bag last year, Judge D. Brock Hornby of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine wrote that the number of civil trials in federal court has declined 60 percent since the mid-1980s, transforming the job of judges. But Scirica said it is still "important to have a judge available and a courtroom available" to keep cases moving and for trials to take place when needed.
Scirica said the conference heard from Attorney General Michael Mukasey -- once a member of the conference when he was a federal judge -- as well as top lawmakers. The members of Congress were still supportive of judicial salary increases, Scirica said, but they did not offer a prediction whether pending legislation to hike judicial pay will pass before the current Congress expires. "They understand how important this is," he said. Apart from salaries though, Scirica said the judicial branch's budget is likely to go up close to 5 percent next year to $6.5 billion, close to what the judiciary requested.
As with his predecessors, Scirica was asked whether anything occurred at the closed-door meeting that could not have been discussed in public. "Probably not," said Scirica. "But it give us an opportunity for open and frank discussion. We don't get together that often."
The conference is composed of the chief judges of the 13 circuit courts and a district court judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, as well as the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. presided. Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski did not attend, and the judges from the 5th Circuit participated by phone because of post-hurricane flooding problems in that circuit.
First reported in The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times