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Justice Alito headlines conference

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Relations between courts and Congress have been strained lately, and a contingent of both are meeting in Indianapolis today to explore the reasons, examine how judicial independence fits in, and try to lay groundwork for improving relations.

The Indiana State Bar Association is sponsoring the "Relations Between Congress and the Federal Courts" conference at the Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis, which began at 8:30 a.m. and features U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. as a key speaker.

More than 100 judges and attorneys are attending the daylong conference, including all five Indiana Supreme Court justices and an array of other state and federal jurists.

"We're here for a reason .... That there's a feeling, one that's not yet ripened into a conclusion, that something isn't right with relations between Congress and the federal courts," said law professor Gerard Magliocca, who talked about the needed dialogue between the branches. "It's calm but tense. We have a reason to be concerned."

Justice Alito noted issues to be concerned with most are judicial pay, growing caseloads, and ambiguous statutes written by lawmakers.

"I'm concerned about the future of the federal judiciary," he said. "We need to bridge that gap of communication."

He suggested more understanding is needed between branches, both need to exercise self-restraint in encroaching on each other's authority, and that judges and lawmakers must rise above the public's cynicism about government and courts.

Magliocca noted the issues exist with District and Circuit courts, rather than with the Supreme Court, and agreed that congressional inaction is largely to blame regarding ways for elected officials to better communicate with the judiciary. He suggests exploring a type of interbranch committee that could review and suggest policy, and a system where the Chief Justice or member of the judiciary could regularly testify before Congress, similar to how the Federal Reserve Chairman currently does on monetary policy twice a year.

Prior to Justice Alito's keynote address, a trio of Hoosier congressmen - U.S. Reps. Mike Pence, Baron Hill, and Brad Ellsworth - also weighed in on various legal issues, such as judicial salaries and compensation, cameras in courts, and how the relationship between the branches can be strengthened. All expressed worry about the line between congressional oversight of the judiciary and independence.

"The greatest threat to the judiciary in the 21st century is elitism," Pence said, noting that can be found in situations such as the nation's highest courts displaying the Ten Commandments, and having prayer to open legislative and judicial proceedings, "... where in Winchester, Indiana, you can't do those things. That tears at the fabric of credibility within the judiciary."

While the conference focuses on serious concerns, Justice Alito offered some humor by noting that he hopes his visit to Indiana will "earn him some credit" with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who grew up in Indiana.

"I'd told him when I first joined the court that I'd never been to Indiana," Justice Alito said. "He thought that was a huge gap in my background. Maybe this will earn some credit, maybe help on opinion assignments."This afternoon, a panel of judges will talk about these same issues from their perspectives. The panel includes Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, U.S. District Chief Judge Larry McKinney in the Southern District, U.S. District Chief Judge Robert Miller Jr. in the Northern District, and U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Baker in Indianapolis who is also president of the Federal Judges Association.
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