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Easterbrook: 7th Circuit 'nation's leader' in productivity

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Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals presented his final State of the Circuit address during the Circuit conference this month in Indianapolis, describing the federal appellate court for Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin as perhaps the nation’s most industrious.

“In a world where the failings of government make headlines, it is well to emphasize the successes,” Easterbrook told the 7th Circuit Bar Association and Judicial Conference on May 6. Circuit Judge Diane Wood will succeed Easterbrook as chief judge on Oct. 1.

IL_Richard_Lugar02-15col.jpg 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook, left, and former Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar talk with members of the judiciary during a luncheon of the 7th Circuit Bar and Judicial Conference on May 6 in Indianapolis.(IL Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

“Last year the 7th Circuit issued 534 published opinions, more than any other (federal) court of appeals – even though we are a relatively small circuit. We issued fully reasoned, precedential opinions in more than 40 percent of all cases; the national average is 19 percent and several courts are down around 10 percent,” he said. “The 7th Circuit hears oral argument in 36 percent of all appeals, essentially every case that has lawyers on both sides. No other Circuit hears more than 30 percent, and one Circuit hears oral argument in only 11 percent of appeals.”

“That the Circuit remains the nation’s leader in both hearing arguments and publishing opinions has been made possible by the fact that for many years we have operated at or close to full strength.” The court has had one vacancy since January 2010 when Judge Terence Evans took senior status. Evans died Aug. 11, 2011.

“And every year about 10 District judges within the Circuit hear one or two days of appellate arguments. I think that judges of both the Circuit and the District courts gain from serving side-by-side as colleagues. We get to know each other, and know our shared business, better,” Easterbrook said.

After consulting with Wood, Easterbrook said the decision was made to make another round of invitations this summer for District judges to sit by designation on Circuit Court panels, starting with newly confirmed judges. After that, judges who received initial invitations four years ago will receive a second invitation.

Easterbrook delivered his address in advance of the introduction of former Sen. Richard G. Lugar. Like Lugar, Easterbrook addressed the escalating politicization of the judicial nomination process by senators of both parties. He joined President Barack Obama and United States Chief Justice John Roberts in calling for a return to historical practices and deference to qualifications over political litmus tests.

Whereas federal court nominees as recently as a decade ago could expect swift confirmation, Easterbrook said, “Senators are playing tit-for-tat, with each Congress determined to replicate delays and perceived injustices done by the other party in a preceding period. … Delay also makes it hard to attract top-quality people to the bench. No practicing lawyer wants to dangle in public while his or her practice dwindles.”

7thcircuit_facts.jpgAgainst such a backdrop, Easterbrook said he was concerned about the rate of confirmations and nominations. He noted the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has had a vacancy for 40 months and no nomination is pending. In the District courts, he said the Western District of Wisconsin has had a 50 percent vacancy rate for the past 38 months with no pending nominations. He said there are three vacancies in the Northern District of Illinois and one in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Meanwhile, federal courts have experienced a decline in filing, and thus revenue, in recent years.

On top of that, sequestration will hit the federal judiciary in areas where fixed costs are not set by law. Judges’ salaries and rent paid to the Government Services Administration for court space, for instance, are constant obligations. “Once the must-pay items are accounted for, a 4 percent reduction works out to a 10 percent or more cut in the money available to pay the people in the clerk’s offices who make the court function, and the federal-protection staff who keep the courthouses open and safe,” Easterbrook said. “The (7th Circuit) Court of Appeals has not found it necessary to lay off or furlough anyone; some District courts may need to do this. If the budget standoff continues, things will become worse for all components of the judiciary.

Funds to pay jurors and criminal-defense lawyers are separate line items. If these are depleted, trials may need to be halted toward the end of the fiscal year until these funds are replenished.” Easterbrook declined a request for interview, deferring to his remarks in which he modestly summed up his six-year tenure leading the court. “My hope when I became chief judge was that I would not spoil the features that have made this Circuit work well and earn the respect of the Supreme Court and our colleagues elsewhere,” he said. “That reputation is a tribute to all of my colleagues, and I think that they have survived my tenure admirably. I’m sure that Judge Wood will just add to the luster.”•

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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