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    December 17, 2008  
 
 
In Chambers with
Fed Circuit Chief

Bowl Madness begins—this Saturday in Washington!  And can you believe it: DC not only gets its first college football bowl game ever, but it'll be the very first one of the post-season. It’s the EagleBank Bowl pitting Navy v. Wake Forest, at good ol’ RFK. Easy to get to, fun for everyone. Please see ad to right, and hope to see you there!

 

It’s not every day that we nab an interview with a Chief Judge of a U.S. Court of Appeals. But the Hon. Paul Michel of the Federal Circuit graciously invited us for an in-chambers chat last week, where we discovered his role in shaping policy for the third branch goes far beyond his court. In fact, he’s one of the closest things the Federal judiciary has to a managing partner.

 

Justice O’Connor liked this view so much that she once told Judge Michel she wanted to swap chambers (yes, that’s the White House in the background). But the Judge doesn’t just physically sit above the Executive Branch; he’s a member of the Judicial Conference, a body of 27 judges—half trial level, half appellate, plus the Chief Justice—who set policy for the Federal judiciary. Judge Michel sits on the seven-judge executive committee which, among other things, hammers out details of the $6 billion Federal courts budget submitted to Congress. One perennial issue: salary restoration. Without automatic cost-of-living increases, judicial pay decreased by 25% in real terms from ’69 to ‘06, and District Court judges now make the same as first-year associates ($165,000).

 

An ’07 bill would have increased pay by about 1/3 across the board, but the Salary Restoration Act never passed, and a stop-gap cost of living adjustment tacked on to the auto bailout bill seems unlikely to pass. At his own court, the Judge oversees the $25-30 million budget for the Federal Circuit (it gets a separate appropriation from Congress). Other administrative duties: the search for office space to use as overflow chambers for Federal Circuit judges within the next couple years and the continuing quest to speed up the docket. Since he became Chief Justice in late ’04, he tells us the Federal Circuit reduced the average time from docketing to disposition from ten months to nine, and 80 percent of cases get a decision within 90 days of argument.

 

It’s appropriate that Judge Michel landed at the Federal Circuit, as he was on the staff of Senate Judiciary Committee member Arlen Spector when the 1982 bill passed to create the unique court: it is the only one of the 13 appellate circuits with a caseload determined by subject matter rather than geography. The Circuit has national jurisdiction over cases involving patents (31% of caseload), Federal employment (29%), veterans benefits (12%), gov’t contracts (5%), int’l trade (5%), and select other matters. Though originally approached about a nomination to the Third Circuit, the Reagan appointee tells us he’s glad he ended up where he did: “there’s enough breadth in the subjects” to keep things interesting, while the focus on specific areas provides “a net gain to consistency in the law.” How successful has the experiment been? The Judge ended our visit with a prediction: some time in the next ten years we may well see the creation of another appellate court of subject matter jurisdiction.

John Ford is Bisnow’s Legal Editor and former clerk to Judge Deanell Reece Tacha of the 10th Circuit. Shoot him story ideas at john@bisnow.com.

 
 
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