Chief Judge Katzmann
Chief Judge Katzmann (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

In the wake of the 2013 congressional budget sequester that pushed the judiciary to the brink, the top judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said he would like the federal courts to take it upon themselves to inform voters how the system works.

“If our judiciary is to prosper, it must have the support of the citizenry,” Chief Judge Robert Katzmann (See Profile) told his colleagues at the Second Circuit Judicial Conference Thursday morning. “We must find ways to bring our constituencies and our communities into our courthouses to educate them about our justice system, to share ideas for improving the administration of justice in our courts, to empower them as citizens to support the federal judiciary and especially to demonstrate the inherent value of public service in their lives and careers.”

Katzmann delivered his State of the Circuit report in Saratoga Springs at a working conference entitled, Cyber Security in an Age of Cyber Terrorism. It was his first such report since taking the reins from Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs (See Profile) in on Sept. 1, 2013.

Among the ideas Katzmann offered in “A New Circuit-Wide Initiative: Public Engagement and Civic Education” were:

• Expanding the Inns of Court program, which brings together experienced lawyers and judges to mentor younger members of the legal profession, into middle schools, high schools and colleges. This would be accomplished “through programs of Oxford-style debates, mock trials and moot courts” and other sessions to “educate students about current legal topics, concepts of justice and mentor them through their formative years,” he said. The Young People’s Inns of Court would be created in every district in the circuit and run in partnership with the Judicial Resource Center, Legal Outreach and bar associations.

• Continuing the evenings at the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse program, where groups of diverse individuals are brought in to hear judges and court staff share their “wit and wisdom about the practice of law and the administration of justice.”

• Opening the courts to more civic organizations and schools. He cited the recent moot court competition of junior high and high school students sponsored by the Harlem Educational Activities Foundation, and a fifth-grade class at Immaculate Conception School in Jamaica, Queens which put Goldilocks on trial in front of parents and teachers.

• Increasing student education, such as an event last month in which the circuit executive, library staff and the staff attorney, working with lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell, taught Midwood High School students about legal research.

• Establishing teacher institutes to develop lessons about the courts that could be part of school curricula.

“By bringing people into the courthouse, especially those who have little or no reason to access our buildings, we can open their eyes, hearts and minds to the work of our dedicated federal judges, court staff and bar and give them a better understanding of the importance of an independent federal judiciary not only to our nation but in their daily lives,” Katzmann said.

He said he wants to start a court ambassadors program made up of senior lawyers “who will serve as docents, researchers and advisors to our constituencies, especially our student groups,” and urged interested lawyers to contact the Circuit Executive’s office. He plans to launch the program in September in celebration of the 225th anniversary of the passage of the First Judiciary Act, which created the federal court system.

Katzmann also said he will create a committee for public engagement and civic education, with an advisory panel of judges, lawyers, educators, curators, architects, engineers, journalists and citizens who support opening the courts to the public.

“Through this program of public engagement and civic education, we will bring our communities into our courthouse; we will show our citizens how our buildings are a living testament to the rule of law upon which our system depends,” Katzmann said.

On the overall state of the Second Circuit, Katzmann declared it good, despite years of budget cuts that culminated with the sequester. He credited cost cutting and finding “innovative ways to do more with less” for the circuit’s status.

As an example, he cited Court of Appeals Clerk Catherine Wolfe, who “has overseen the decrease of personnel in her office from 84 to the fifties, and with great skill has managed to ensure that the court’s needs have been met.”

He also credited the work of Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska (See Profile), Eastern District Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon (See Profile) and Judge Richard Eaton of the Court of International Trade for alerting key legislators to the threats posed by the sequester and urging them to ultimately pass “the first full congressional appropriations bill in a number of years.”

And Katzmann praised the efforts of members of the Federal Bar Council, New York State Bar Association, Federal Bar Association and the New York City Bar for making “numerous trips to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators and their staffs to educate Congress about the financial needs of the federal courts in our circuit.”

Since the last Judicial Conference in 2012, Katzmann said 20 new judges have been appointed in the circuit courts. There are no vacancies on the Court of Appeals, nor in the Western and Southern Districts and just one vacancy each in the Eastern and Northern Districts of New York, and the Districts of Vermont and Connecticut.

There are three vacancies in the bankruptcy courts, two in the Southern District, with the retirements of Judges James Peck and Allan Gropper.