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FEDERAL COURTS AVERT BUDGET DISASTER The nation’s federal courts averted a disaster when Congress approved a 4.3 percent increase in spending for the U.S. court system. Over the past year, more than 1,300 jobs have been slashed as federal courts dealt with two years’ worth of underfunded budgets. There was talk of additional furloughs, nonpayment of court-appointed lawyers, and closing courthouses one day a week if no substantial budget increases were made in 2005. Court officials say such drastic scenarios were avoided when Congress approved $5.42 billion in spending for the U.S. courts. While it wasn’t the 5.6 percent requested, court officials say it is enough to avoid further reductions. “The bottom line is we’re pretty lucky,” says David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. “In a year where most domestic accounts got a very small increase, the judiciary got 4.3 percent. Given the budgetary environment, it’s about the best you could have hoped for.” It is still unclear how much of that increase will go to D.C.’s federal court system. Since 2002, the D.C. courts’ budget has decreased more than 5 percent, from $15.3 million to $14.5 million. Since October 2003, 22 jobs — primarily in the clerk and probation offices — have been lost. Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia says the additional funding “means we will be able to hold on to what we have.” Federal courts nationwide have ordered layoffs and other cuts as their budgets have tightened. Court officials say they have struggled to meet increasing mandatory costs such as rent and cost of living raises. Meanwhile, federal judges and court administrators argue caseloads are on the rise, especially in the Southwest, where there has been an increased focus on illegal immigration. As part of its lobbying campaign, the federal judiciary put together a list of court systems that made the deepest cuts. Topping the list was the Western District of Tennessee, which lost 15.6 percent of its staff. D.C. had the fifth highest rate of layoffs among the 94 district court systems. The Eastern District of Virginia was 44th on the list — cutting 25 of 430 positions. Sellers says the 4.3 percent increase should not lead to additional cuts because federal courts had already planned for a smaller increase. In August, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference drafted plans under two different budget scenarios. One involved a 4 percent increase. The other considered how the courts would operate if a budget had not been approved by the end of December. Sellers says the Executive Committee will meet shortly to decide how the additional money will be spent. — Tom Schoenberg VERDICT TOSSED A Prince George’s County, Md., judge has thrown out a $17.2 million jury verdict against Gardner Carton & Douglas. The Nov. 19 ruling comes three months after a jury found the firm and partner George Grammas committed malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and tortious interference in its dealings with an ailing satellite venture in the late 1990s. In a 55-page opinion, Circuit Judge Steven Platt concluded that the verdict was “impermissibly based on speculation and conjecture.” The case grew out of a business dispute between two owners of a startup satellite company. Grammas was hired to split up the company. One owner, however, accused Grammas of working solely in the interests of the other owner. “We are pleased that our integrity, professionalism, and high standards are vindicated,” says Gardner Carton chairman Harold Kaplan. Charles Wayne of Piper Rudnick, part of the trial team representing Gardner Carton, says he is confident that Platt’s order will be upheld on appeal. Creighton Magid, a Dorsey & Whitney partner and lead counsel for the plaintiff, did not return calls. — Tom Schoenberg BEIJING BOUND Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr is hoping that it can leverage its D.C. government affairs and international trade presence into business for its new office in Beijing. The firm opened its doors in China’s capital by poaching five attorneys and their clients from the Beijing office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Former U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and former USTR General Counsel Robert Novick — leaders of Wilmer’s China practice — will help open the office. Novick says that though Wilmer is often hired for its reputation in government affairs and policy work, “we didn’t have the bodies on the ground [internationally] for the corporate work.” Paul, Weiss chairman Alfred Youngwood says the firm is replacing the lost talent with the help of its Hong Kong office. — Jason McLure FAST TRACK The Supreme Court may have thought it was done looking at terrorism-related Guantánamo Bay issues last term when it ruled in Rasul v. Bush. But a fast-tracked appeal involving military commissions under way at Guantánamo could bring another ruling this term: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which questions the legitimacy of the commissions for noncitizens in light of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions. Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni citizen who allegedly was a driver for al Qaeda, won a ruling Nov. 8 from Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The Bush administration filed an appeal to the D.C. Circuit Nov. 18, calling the Robertson ruling an “unprecedented intrusion” into presidential powers. But in an unusual move, Hamdan’s lawyers, led by Georgetown University Law Center professor Neal Katyal, have leapfrogged ahead of the government and asked the Supreme Court to take up the appeal directly this term. “We’d rather get it resolved as soon as possible,” Katyal says. “It’s tough seeing the way he lives right now.” Katyal asserts that waiting for the appeals court to rule would add a fourth year to Hamdan’s imprisonment and leave the commissions in limbo. “The vitality of the Geneva Conventions would remain in doubt until the following term,” adds David Remes of D.C.’s Covington & Burling, author of an amicus brief for retired military brass who think the United States should follow Geneva Conventions rules on the treatment of wartime captives. — Tony Mauro A PASSING Ronald Plesser, an influential high-tech and telecommunications partner and lobbyist at Piper Rudnick, died Nov.18 of an apparent heart attack. He was 59. Plesser chaired the electronic commerce and privacy practice group and represented a bevy of industry giants, including Time Warner, Viacom Inc., the Netscape Communications Corp., and the Direct Marketing Association. As lead counsel against the Federal Trade Commission, he opposed the creation of the National Do-Not-Call Registry, and he continually warned about the inherent privacy dangers in combining commercial and government databases. Over the years, he also litigated a number of suits under the Freedom of Information Act and was instrumental in identifying shortcomings with the 1966 act. “He was a leader and a true pioneer in his field,” says Jeffrey Liss, Piper’s chief operating officer, in a statement. “He will be sorely missed.” — Bethany Broida HUNTON HOMECOMING D. Bruce Hoffman, deputy director of the Bureau of Competition at the Federal Trade Commission, will rejoin his old firm, Hunton & Williams, on Dec. 1. Hoffman, a former partner in the Miami office, will join the D.C. office as a partner and firmwide vice chair of the antitrust practice group. During his time at the FTC, Hoffman oversaw the bureau’s antitrust enforcement activities and supervised a number of mergers, including the General Electric-Vivendi Universal and Monster.com-HotJobs.com deals. Hoffman says that after three years at the FTC, it just felt like the right time to return to private practice and give someone else a turn at the agency. — Bethany Broida MOVING EXPERIENCE Cabin fever seems to have recently struck Powell Goldstein. Earlier this month, the firm’s 90-attorney D.C. office moved from its old digs overlooking the Justice Department at 1001 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., to a new building on Mount Vernon Square. The same week, the firm packed its 200-attorney home office in Atlanta off to a new location in that city. D.C. managing partner Alan Parver says both moves went off without a hitch. “We’re moving into what we think is an up-and-coming part of the city,” Parver says. At 90,000 square feet, the new space at 901 New York Ave., N.W., is about 10 percent smaller and rents for a bit less per square foot (mid-$40s) than offices on Pennsylvania Avenue (low $50s). And with the new space come new neighbors: The firm will soon be joined in the building by Goodwin Proctor and Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner. But the walls of Powell’s old office won’t long yearn for the hum of lawyers at work: Crowell & Moring will move into the Pennsylvania Avenue offices after the new year. — Jason McLure

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