Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., with a not-so-subtle suggestion that the Senate should stop playing politics with nominations of judges to the federal courts, on Friday called for a “long-term solution to this recurring problem.”  In another notable feature of his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, the Chief Justice notified Congress that the Court itself, through belt-tightening, will be asking for less money in its new budget than it did last year.  The text of the report can be read here.

Like the rest of the federal government, the Court, the Chief Justice said, is feeling the financial strain of the “economic downturn.”  The Court, he said, is trying to do its part in restraining rising costs.  But he went on to note that the federal courts need not only money, but judges, and on that point he appeared to suggest that the Senate had fallen down on its constitutionally assigned task of reviewing and confirming the President’s nominees.

“Over many years,” he said, “a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies.  Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes.”  That shifting with the political winds, he said, “has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts.”  Some districts in the country, he said, are facing “extraordinary caseloads” as a result.

He argued that there is “an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution,” but his report offered no suggestion on what that might be — an indication that the judiciary does not see it as part of its constitutional responsibility to coach the political branches on how they deal with their responsibilities. Roberts made it clear he does not quarrel with the Constitution’s assignment of the selection and review process for judgeships to the President and the Senate.

In discussing the Court’s efforts to try to help the overall government with its pressing budget woes, the Chief Justice said that the Court’s staff has responded to his pleas for find ways to reduce spending.  As a result, and even in the face of increases in operating costs “owing to inflation,” the Court now expects “to voluntarily reduce its fiscal year 2012 appropriations request to less than its fiscal 2011 request.  Not many other federal government entities can say that.”

The fiscal year begins on Oct. 1; fiscal 2011 began on Oct. 10 of this year.   For that year, the Court asked Congress for a total budget of $92,546,000, an increase of $3,987,000 over the fiscal 2010 appropriation of $88,559,000.   The fiscal 2011 request included $77,758,000 for salaries and expenses and $14,788,000 for care of the building and grounds.

The Chief Justice did not give an estimate on how much lower the fiscal 2012 request will be.

For other federal courts, the Chief Justice said that new efficiencies will enable the judiciary “to reduce by 60 percent its request for new court staff in fiscal year 2012.”

In his report, Roberts did not provide an update on the progress of the Court’s building modernization project — which began in 2003, but failed to meet its target completion date of 2008, and is not yet finished as 2010 ends.  The project, however, is nearly complete, and in recent weeks, the progress was visible from the exterior of the Court, with the removal of trailers that had served as temporary quarters for some Court staff on the Maryland Avenue side of the Courthouse.  Some trailers still remain on both sides of the building, but are likely to depart sometime during 2011.

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Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Chief: End partisan feuds over judgeships, SCOTUSblog (Dec. 31, 2010, 6:01 PM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2010/12/chief-end-partisan-feud-over-judgeships/