The Third Branch Newsletter

October 1996

End of Session Legislation Favors Judiciary

The 104th Congress, which concluded earlier this month, brought enactment of line-item veto legislation; extended the life of the Parole Commission; reformed prisoner litigation; streamlined habeas corpus petitions; established mandatory victim restitution provisions; and denied judges a cost-of-living increase. A detailed wrap-up of the 104th Congress will appear in the November issue of The Third Branch.

In the waning days of its second session Congress approved two measures of particular interest to the Judiciary: a fiscal year 1997 spending bill and the Federal Courts Improvement Act.

FY 97 Budget Passes

The federal government was spared another government shutdown when Congress and the President agreed to an omnibus FY 97 funding bill on the last day of FY 96. The Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, P.L. 104-208, provides the Judiciary with an overall funding increase of 7 percent over FY 96, with the Salaries and Expenses account receiving a 5 percent increase.

The success enjoyed by the Judiciary was achieved through a major effort by friends of the Judiciary in Congress and by liaison judges, including the Budget Committee members, and by the staff and director of the Administrative Office.

With the addition of fees, amounts available are sufficient to fully fund the financial plan approved by the Executive Committee for the Salaries and Expenses, Fees of Jurors, and Court Security accounts. Amounts available for Defender Services will fully fund current estimated obligations, with the exception of a $5 per hour pay raise for private attorneys who represent indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act, which was specifically denied in report language. In doing so, the conferees noted their concern with the rising costs associated with the Defender Services account and directed the AO to take the necessary steps to moderate the rate of increase. The conferees also said that the funding for new defender organizations should be considered only after it is clear that adequate funding exists for current organizations.

The AO received an increase over FY 96, but is $1 million below the revised request. The appropriations provided the Federal Judicial Center and the U.S. Sentencing Commission are slightly below the 1996 enacted level.

The House-Senate conference report on the Judiciary's portion of the FY 97 spending measure provided for

Congress Clears Federal Courts Improvement Act

S. 1887, the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1996, cleared the Senate and the House just minutes before each body adjourned sine die. Within the final two weeks of the congressional session, the bill was held on the Senate floor for both political and substantive reasons totally unrelated to the bill. The delay resulted in several provisions being dropped from the bill, including the repeal of section 140 of P.L. 97-92, which bars annual cost-of-living adjustments for judges unless specifically authorized by Congress.

In the end, the improvements bill passed both the Senate and House by unanimous consent. The bill contains 33 separate provisions that had been endorsed by the Judicial Conference and address administrative, financial, jurisdictional, and personnel needs of the judicial branch.

"Our improvements bill, which was basically noncontroversial in nature, seemed to fall victim to nearly every procedural and political ploy that exists," said AO Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham. "The fact that the bill was among the few that both houses cleared in their final minutes is a tribute to the many judges and the AO staff who kept a watchful eye on its progress and made the necessary contacts to ensure its passage." (See related story "Uphill Fight Brings Courts Bill Home.")

Among the provisions contained in S. 1887 as enacted, are the following:

In addition to the section 140 provision, also dropped from the bill were