At Sentencing Law & Policy, Doug Berman received an email from someone who works in the federal courts. While it’s not quite explained, it appears that Doug credits the email as being from someone who is indeed an “insider,” even though it’s posted under the pseudonym “Joe FedCourt.”
The entire email is definitely worthy of a read, maybe two, as it’s quite hard to follow, but it includes this:
As if it is their place to step in and question ANY Article III judge. This only follows upon what we have seen this past year, with Defenders running to the Hill, talking to DOJ about clemency, and discussing indigent defense with the press. The mechanics of how justice is administered in this country, in terms of the allocation of resources and the scope of jurisdiction, is exclusively the purview of the Judicial Conference of the United States and should be recognized as such. The Conference could have gotten more money for judges’ chambers and court staff if it weren’t for people like the Defenders sucking up all the oxygen last summer and fall! Not to mention magistrates undermining confidence in the Conference as people wonder who the hell is running the Judiciary!!!
Some commenters suggested that Doug got punked. Others suggest that this is some low rent transitory clerk. Others dismiss it as an incomprehensible rant by someone so myopic and ignorant as to be unworthy of being taken seriously. These are all possibilities.
The problem, and reason I take it seriously, is that the Office of Defender Services, or the federal defenders as they are most often called, is indeed under the auspices of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, making this sentence pretty darned ominous.
The Conference could have gotten more money for judges’ chambers and court staff if it weren’t for people like the Defenders sucking up all the oxygen last summer and fall!
Whether this is a joke or not, given its facially absurd comparison between money spent on defending people versus a new sofa for chambers, it raises an important, perhaps even critical, point: Should the defense function be under the same roof as the system in general? Should the federal defender budget involve a tradeoff with court staff salaries and benefits? Should Article III judges be placed in the uncomfortable position of choosing between whether some despised defendant gets investigative services or the judge gets a cool, new high-back chair?
As Doug properly notes, assuming Joe FedCourt isn’t playing with him, he may reflect the thoughts of one outlier nutjob who happens to work in a federal courthouse for a judge “on a prominent committee of the Judicial Conference,” because there is no psychological testing required for such a job, or a more pervasive view. Since it’s impossible for anyone on the outside to answer, let’s assume that most federal court employees are sane and have a relatively working moral compass.
Regardless, when the defense walks into court, it is reasonable to anticipate that there is no overt hostility by court staff. Whether it’s one person or 100, a federal defender should never have to concern himself with the notion that he, and his function, are viewed as the enemy, “sucking up the oxygen” for doing his job.
But is Joe FedCourt relaying a deeper, more troubling message?
As if it is their place to step in and question ANY Article III judge.
Federal defenders may share some interests with the rest of the system, but have extremely different interests as well. Do judges think the job of federal defender is to be good little boys and girls, never questioning “ANY Article III judge”? Are efforts by federal defenders to push their concerns, their interests, in Congress resented by the judges? Is there an antagonism that hides beneath the surface?
It’s hard to imagine that if there is one person who harbors this sort of anger and hostility toward the federal defenders, and the defense function itself, then there are more. It’s also hard to imagine that this doesn’t bear on the judge’s attitude, the one on the prominent Judicial Conference committee, as the spillover usually comes from somewhere, and it’s the judge’s attitude, gripes and comments that are transmitted to his or her staff.
There is no way to make judges love the defense. They may believe they can still be “fair,” but that’s just because most people delude themselves into believing they’re fair. If this sort of seething hostility exists in even one courtroom, then anyone whose life is at risk there is not getting fairness, but suffering the ramifications of tacit hostility and antagonism. This is unacceptable.
The obvious answer is that the federal defenders ought to be independent of court administration. Indeed, they shouldn’t be connected financially under any circumstances. Their functions, though connected, are not compatible. Their interests are decidedly different. And to either compete for funds, or be hated for “sucking oxygen” away from ottomans and staff picnics, creates a competition that will inherently impact discretion.
Or maybe Joe FedCourt just punked me as well as Doug. Either way, the defense function ought to be independent of the courts, and any Article III judge who finds it intolerable to be “questioned” by a federal defender is too fragile to wear a robe. It’s the defense’s job to question, indeed challenge, federal judges. It’s bad enough we have to laugh at their jokes, but it is never our duty to please the judge or his staff.