Creating an Office of Inspector General in the Federal Courts

By Hartmus, Diane M. | Public Administration Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Creating an Office of Inspector General in the Federal Courts


Hartmus, Diane M., Public Administration Quarterly


INTRODUCTION

On December 5, 1995, Senator John McCain introduced a bill in Congress to amend the Inspector General Act of 1978 and establish an Office of Inspector General in the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The bill did not pass; it was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary but no further action was ever taken. Although the exact impetus behind Senator McCain's actions is unknown,1 congressional scrutiny of the administrative functions of the judiciary has increased in recent years and it is fair to say that creation of an Office of Inspector General (IG) is a logical, if somewhat provocative, step for Congress to take in its continuing efforts in this area. Congress maintains that administrative oversight of the judiciary is one of its constitutional responsibilities whereas the federal judiciary believes that it should have complete administrative independence. This has created considerable tension between the branches.

COURT STRUCTURE AND ADMINISTRATION

The federal judiciary is comprised of the Supreme Court, 12 geographic circuit courts of appeal, 94 district courts, 91 bankruptcy courts, the Court of International Trade, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and the Court of Federal Claims. With a budget of $3.3 billion, it employs over 28,000 people. Unlike any executive agency, the administrative structure of the federal courts is highly decentralized. The federal court system is composed of independent judges governed largely by agreement and consensus with very little hierarchical structure. Each of the 94 district courts and 12 circuit courts of appeal is allowed considerable latitude in implementing policy (Lucianovic, 1996).

Decisions regarding most day-to-day administrative functions in the courts are the responsibility of the local courts. This has been particularly true in the area of budget, information resource management, and personnel (Lucianovic, 1996). Under the guidance of the chief judge (who is the senior incumbent and serves a maximum of seven years), court executives, clerks of court, and their staffs perform day-to-day administrative functions such as management of cases, finances, space and facilities, and personnel systems.

In 1939 Congress created the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) to provide a wide range of administrative, legal, and program support services to the federal courts (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1996). The director of the AO employs approximately 900 employees and has a budget of $4.4 million. He is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the Chief Justice and is charged with seeing that the policies of the Judicial Conference--the principal policy-making body of the federal judiciary--are carried out. The Judicial Conference of the United States is composed of 26 judges and the Chief Justice of the United States and oversees an extensive national network of committees that assist it in making policy recommendations for the federal courts.

CONGRESSIONAL OVERSIGHT

In overseeing the administration of the federal judiciary, Congress believes it is exercising its constitutional responsibility, whereas judges often claim that Congress attempts to "micro-manage" the judiciary. Senator McClain's bill is the latest event highlighting this tension. It was preceded by various actions causing disagreement such as The Civil Justice Reform Act of 1990 (CJRA). The CJRA required each district court to develop an "expense and delay reduction plan" and to routinely publish the number of motions and bench trials each judge has pending for more than six months and the number of cases that have not been terminated within three years of filing."2

Almost unanimously, federal judges attacked this legislation, claiming "it interferes with both the integrity and the independence of our... courts ...[I]t is bad policy ... [federal judges] believe it will increase costs and delays rather than reduce [them]. …

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