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Federal judges enjoy prestige, lifetime tenure, and the power to call the shots in their own courtrooms. But to get what they want in the halls of Congress, they need lobbyists just like everyone else. Legal and ethical constraints bar the judicial branch from turning to some connected ex-Appropriations staffer on K Street when seeking pay raises or a new courthouse. Instead, a little-known unit of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) assumes the task of advocate for the federal judiciary. The office, which includes seven professional staffers, has been headed by former House Judiciary aide Michael Blommer, 62, for the last six years. And now, as federal trial courts on the nation’s southwest border are becoming overcrowded beyond the breaking point, and as judges’ salaries are falling well behind inflation, the judges are finding that they need Hill advocates more than ever. “We are the weakest branch,” says Leonidas Ralph Mecham, who has been the director of the AO since 1985 and is a former aide to the late Sen. Wallace Bennett, R-Utah. “We may be the third branch, but we are unequal in power to the other two. We have to find our own allies. We are constantly being told on the Hill that we have no constituency. We have to be our own constituency.” Mecham, 73, says that in view of these legislative realities, the AO’s key objective is “to make [members of Congress] feel a stewardship responsibility for us.” In order to foster that attitude, Blommer’s staffers — often aided by hands-on advocacy by Mecham himself — do many of the basic things that commercial lobbyists do. They meet with Hill aides, provide background briefings to key committee members, and prepare their leaders — in this case federal trial and appellate judges themselves — to testify on the key issues. But the members of the AO’s legislative shop, all but one of whom are lawyers, don’t take members to lunch, play golf with them, or throw fancy parties. “There are two kinds of lobbyists. Some wine and dine you, and some know the facts. The AO people don’t wine or dine, but they do give us the information we need,” says a Republican Senate aide. “I don’t have time to hand-hold 850 federal judges, but they do. That’s their job.” FRONTIER JUSTICE This year, the work of Blommer’s group is focused on three primary issues. The most urgent is the push to increase the number of judges and other judicial resources in five federal districts in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California that share a border with Mexico and cope with a flood of immigration-related cases, mostly involving drug smugglers or people who try to enter the country illegally. The AO is seeking 18 new judgeships in the border courts, nine permanent and nine temporary, out of a total of 54 new judgeships that it is requesting nationwide. The courts are also seeking a significant jump in pay for appointed criminal defense attorneys under the Criminal Justice Act. Hourly rates now range between $55 and $75; the AO would like to increase that to $113 per hour to account for inflation. Finally, there is the perennial, and perennially unsuccessful, push for higher judicial salaries. The dynamics of that battle have shifted in recent years, as the spike in salaries for law firm associates means that some starting lawyers immediately earn more than federal judges. This year, the AO is requesting a catch-up pay increase of 9.6 percent, as well as an inflation adjustment for 2002. Currently, U.S. district judges make $145,100 per year, and appeals court judges earn $153,900. A 9.6 percent raise would boost those figures to $159,000 and $168,700, respectively. Past efforts at pay raises have met with little sympathy in Congress, which has tied judicial increases to congressional pay, and then opted not to raise congressional salaries for fear of negative public reaction. Some on the Hill also maintain that federal judges are already well-paid for public servants and that jurists should not try to compare their income with that of law partners. On the salary issue, the AO’s lobbyists are also hampered by many judges’ reluctance to lobby vigorously to boost their own pay. Four years ago, while working on an effort to snag a cost-of-living increase from Congress, now-retired Washington, D.C., federal Judge Joyce Hens Green said, “I enjoy meeting people, but I don’t enjoy this [legislative] kind of activity because I don’t believe that the judiciary should have to go hat in hand to the political branch to ask for equity.” As the salary standoff suggests, the courts haven’t always hit it off perfectly with their overseers in Congress. “Several years ago, the federal judges were testifying on salaries,” says Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on courts, the Internet, and intellectual property. “One guy said he was toward the bottom of his law school class standing in salaries. I told him, ‘I don’t want to be cute, but you can always go back to practicing law.’ Then the word got out that I was opposed to federal judges, that I was anathema. That wasn’t true, and I have removed that reputation.” Nonetheless, Coble says he gives the AO lobbyists “high marks” for being “professional and highly knowledgeable.” “Sure, they can overplay their hand,” he says, “but I don’t think they’re any worse than anyone else in this town.” The hand that the AO legislative shop plays, Mecham hastens to point out, is dealt by the judges themselves. The AO itself does not adopt policies on issues such as sentencing laws or tort reform. Only the Judicial Conference — the 27-member policy-making body of the federal courts that includes trial and appeals judges from each circuit and is headed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist — takes positions. It directs Mecham, and through him Blommer and all the other AO staffers, to work in support of those policies. “I’m the conference’s man,” Mecham says in a matter-of-fact manner. He is the only nonjudge on the conference’s eight-member executive committee. COURT TV Nonetheless, Mecham doesn’t like using the term lobbyist for himself, Blommer, or others on the AO’s staff. “We respond to open invitations [from members] to present our views,” he notes. But he concedes that this process “has aspects that might be seen as lobbying.” Although the AO doesn’t use any of its approximately $50 million budget to take members to lunch or organize grassroots coalitions, it’s not embarrassed to use some of the other time-honored tools of the lobbyist’s trade. Blommer and all but one of his staffers have experience on the Hill. Blommer is a low-key Midwesterner and 1963 University of Wisconsin law graduate who served in the 1970s as a top aide on Judiciary to the late Rep. Charles Wiggins, a California Republican and later a judge on the 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals. Blommer also developed plenty of Hill contacts in his 16 years as executive director of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. His staffers are assigned to follow specific areas, such as judicial pay and benefits or criminal justice. The one nonlawyer in Blommer’s shop works on courthouse construction issues. Earlier this year, the AO’s Office of Public Affairs, in conjunction with Blommer’s shop, tried a new lobbying tack, producing a highly polished 15-minute video entitled “Crisis in the Border Courts.” With crisp on-camera narration by Dan Cunningham, a member of Blommer’s unit with a broadcast background who is a former staffer for Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the fast-paced, documentary-style report features scenes of illegal immigrants being caught with drugs by trained dogs at border checkpoints. The video is punctuated with sober interviews of overworked chief judges. The video, made entirely in-house by the AO, was shown in March to a House Appropriations subcommittee that was hearing Mecham and several judges present the judiciary’s budget request. “We ought to do more of these,” says Mecham, noting that this is the first lobbying video ever made by the AO. “Sometimes it makes sense to seize upon current issues.” Several Capitol Hill staffers say they are not offended by the use of judicial resources to make the video. In fact, they think it’s a good idea. “It’s an effective lobbying technique,” says a Democratic Senate Judiciary staffer. “They are an entire branch of government, after all. Just as the White House comes to the Hill, they are entitled to, as well.” Though the AO staff doesn’t build grassroots coalitions, the judges take advantage of allies when they can find them. For example, when Rehnquist made his personal pitch for judicial pay increases in February, it was at a Supreme Court press conference alongside the heads of the American Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association. Another stratagem that Mecham employs is picking the right judge for a lobbying assignment based on his or her state of origin. After all, the federal judiciary is one constituency that, by its nature, is able to rustle somebody up from just about every corner of every state. “When we need to set up a meeting with Trent Lott, we’ll find a bankruptcy judge from Mississippi who knows him, and we might ask Chief Judge [Lawrence] Piersol of South Dakota to set up a meeting with Tom Daschle,” Mecham says. Piersol, who appeared at Mecham’s side at the March Appropriations hearing, is a member of the Judicial Conference’s budget committee. Besides getting generally good marks from congressional staffers, the AO lobbyists seem to be popular among the judges themselves. “Mike Blommer has been a great help to me in understanding the congressional process and how it works,” says Judge Procter Hug Jr. of the 9th Circuit, a former chief judge who spent a year shuttling to Washington in an effort to fill numerous vacancies and to do battle against a Senate proposal to break his circuit court in two. “He was very helpful in helping us know the status of our vacancies and being able to fill those, for example.” Blommer declined to be interviewed for this story. LOBBYING LIMITATIONS The AO’s lobbying efforts do have some detractors. Some suggest the AO is too protective of its core constituents, while noting that the judges’ distaste for political warfare hamstrings the office. Thomas Susman of the D.C. office of Ropes & Gray has lobbied on a pro bono basis for 15 years on behalf of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The claims court is an Article I court whose judges don’t have lifetime tenure. By statute, it is not represented on the Judicial Conference and is not part of the AO structure. “As someone who sometimes lobbied on the other side of the AO, I found that they took a very self-protective view of the world,” says Susman, who overcame the AO’s opposition and succeeded in getting pay parity for Claims Court judges. “The only question they asked was, ‘Does this threaten the stature of our judges?’ “ David Sellers, the AO’s director of public affairs, replies, “The Judicial Conference has separate committees dealing with magistrate and bankruptcy judges, and the AO has distinct offices providing support to these committees. The interests and concerns of Article I judges are fully considered and frequently encompassed in legislation considered by the Judicial Conference. “Every time a Judiciary budget is enacted, a new courthouse is built, or judges receive a cost-of-living adjustment, Article I judges benefit, as do Article III judges,” Sellers says. Susman, a longtime observer of the federal judiciary, says he has no problem with Blommer’s efforts. “It’s not an easy job he has, though, because many judges think it’s unseemly to politick and to respond to cross-examination,” Susman says. “Furthermore, that office is constrained by the fact that they have to be responsive to the Judicial Conference, and that is not a democratic or an open institution.” Another D.C. lawyer with Hill experience agrees that the vigor of the AO’s lobbying efforts is reduced by many judges’ reluctance to dirty their hands in the legislative arena. “The judges are like fish out of water,” says the lawyer. “The judges feel very uncomfortable having to come before Congress begging for funds. The result is that the office is pretty ineffective.” A private lawyer who has been involved in lobbying on behalf of judges’ causes says Blommer’s unit “is effective on those issues that they choose to undertake,” but that on many controversial issues, including proposals to divide the 9th Circuit in two, the AO had no impact. Sellers replies that the Judicial Conference’s policy on circuit breakups and similar issues is to seek the views of the affected circuit. If the circuit judges support the change proposed in Congress, the AO will lobby for it. If the circuit is opposed, as was the case with the 9th Circuit, the AO will take no position, and the circuit judges themselves are left free to lobby on the Hill. Mecham says legislative work has become a significant part of his job, and he encourages judges to participate in it. “When they put on the robes, their mission changes,” he says. “But in doing so, they have not given up their First Amendment rights to express their views.”

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