Interview: AO Director Discusses Challenges Facing Judiciary
Senior District Judge Thomas F. Hogan (D. D.C.) was named Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. in October 2011. He was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1982, and he served as chief judge of that court from 2001 until 2008, when he assumed senior status. He chaired the Judicial Conference Executive Committee from 2005 to 2008.
You are the first federal judge to be the Director of the Administrative Office. Is the job everything you expected?
As a former chair of the Judicial Conference Executive Committee and a member of the Judicial Conference I worked closely with past AO Directors, and I thought I had a good feel for the job. But sitting in the Director's office has given me a new perspective on—and appreciation for—the work of the AO and the federal Judiciary.
There's a tremendous amount of work going on here at the AO, from budget projections to new ways to reduce recidivism. AO directorates deal with personnel issues, pension plans, supervision methods, statistical databases, bankruptcy noticing, training—you name it, and if it has anything to do with the federal court system, the AO makes a contribution. This is a talented, resourceful, and dedicated workforce.
I've also found there are many facets to the job of AO Director. Certainly relationships and communications with judges and the courts consume the bulk of the time. However, I also dedicate a significant amount of my day to our work with Congress—I'm surprised how much of the Director's job deals with legislative matters—as well as to my role as secretary to the Judicial Conference. Of course we also are in regular communication with the General Services Administration (GSA) and the U.S. Marshals Service.
It's a different challenge every day, but there is one constant: service to the courts remains our core mission.
In late March you and Judge Julia Gibbons appeared before the House Appropriations Subcommittee to present the Judiciary's funding request for fiscal year 2013. What was your take away?
There is no doubt that fiscal year 2013 will offer the Judiciary and the AO their greatest challenge. It is clear that the Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, Representative Jo Ann Emerson, and ranking minority member, Representative José Serrano, recognize the important work we do. They would like to help us by providing the resources we need. But they were blunt in telling us the funds we need may not be in the budget. It is important to note that the FY 2013 requested increase for the Judiciary is 3.1 percent, our smallest on record.
When you look back and realize the courts already have been operating with a virtual freeze on their funding for the last two years, the picture for FY 2013 becomes even more dire. The great unknown is the prospect of sequestration—the cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act, which will take effect in January 2013, if the President and Congress do not first agree to an alternative deficit reduction plan. If sequestration occurs, the entire federal government will suffer significant reductions in services and staffing.
Clearly, these are difficult times for both the courts and the AO. The leadership of Budget Committee Chair, Judge Julia Gibbons, with whom I appeared before Congress to press our fiscal year 2013 funding request, and the support of Executive Committee Chair Judge David Sentelle, has been immensely helpful as we prepare for the potential of decreased funding. They have brought together Judicial Conference committee chairs, and with input from the courts, identified and implemented many significant cost-saving measures. This important work needs to continue. This will not only help us better manage during these difficult times; it also shows the Congressional appropriators that the judicial branch is doing its part to work more efficiently and effectively.
Would you talk about those cost-containment efforts?
The Judiciary began its cost-containment efforts more than seven years ago. The initiatives begun then led to a rent cost avoidance of approximately $400 million below estimates made prior to beginning the initiatives. These efforts also have limited the growth in the number of court support staff and in the costs of law clerks, led to investment in technology that enhances court productivity and service, and updated staffing formulas to include incentives for efficiency and reduced duplication of services.
At a special 2011 summit, Judicial Conference committee members and their chairs considered an array of long- and short-term cost-containment ideas generated through court unit executives, as well as by the Judiciary's system of advisory groups and councils. Then the Judicial Conference at its March 2012 meeting approved a series of money-saving initiatives in an effort to prepare for funding levels that will otherwise cause significant reductions in staff and court services.
At the AO, we're doing our part to contain costs by further reducing our staffing levels, on top of the staffing reductions put in effect by my predecessor, Jim Duff. We continue to operate under a non-growth, current services budget. Buy-outs and early-outs have been in place at the AO. An AO Task Force continues to explore savings through process improvements, workforce restructuring, and other meaningful non-salary reductions that do not negatively impact essential services. Like the courts, we at the AO will be doing more with less funding.
But cost containment isn't all about cuts. The AO is expanding mobile computing and remote access and exploring new ways to use technology to work smarter. Thanks to thousands of comments from users inside and outside of the Judiciary, we've nearly finished gathering the requirements for the Next Generation of the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system. The new system will be more streamlined, while offering greater standardization and efficiency for users. We've added features to the PACER system that provide greater public access to records. E-Juror is saving clerks offices staff time and money when jurors can complete questionnaires and forms online.
How does the AO work with Congress?
The most recent example of our interaction with Congress was our recent budget hearing. AO staff was busy for weeks prior to the hearing and afterwards, responding to congressional questions about the Judiciary and its programs, and compiling the numbers and examples that help make our case for adequate funding.
AO staff help make the Judiciary's case when legislation is introduced that will impact the courts, or when legislation is recommended by the Judicial Conference. In addition to providing witnesses for Congressional hearings, AO staff regularly meet with Hill staff and members of Congress on issues important to the Judiciary. In the last few months, I have reached out to many Members to get to know them, and to acquaint them with the Judiciary's needs.
AO staff also assist judges in their outreach to their Congressional delegations as they develop new or build upon existing relationships. Staff can provide valuable background and insights and I urge judges to make use of our resources, in order to make their contacts with the Hill as effective as possible.
What has the Judiciary been working on in the 112th Congress?
Last session, we saw passage of our Federal Courts Jurisdiction and Venue Clarification Act of 2011. This new law reflects substantial work over several years by the Committee on Federal-State Jurisdiction, ably assisted by AO staff. In early January, the President signed into law legislation extending Judicial Conference redaction authority over sensitive security information in federal judges' or judicial employees' financial disclosure reports. This authority is vital to the security of judges, judges' families and Judiciary staff.
Every two years, following an exhaustive court survey, conducted by AO staff, and with review by the Judicial Conference and its pertinent committees, we recommend to Congress the needs we have for new and temporary Article III and bankruptcy judgeships. Judgeship bills are currently pending.
We work with Congressional staff to make the case for new courthouses where facilities are unsafe and outgrown, or where renovations might extend the life of a courthouse. Unfortunately, there was no funding for new courthouses in either FY 2011 or 2012 and we don't expect that situation to change in FY 2013.
Congressional restrictions to control and reduce spending make the passage of any legislation increasingly difficult.
Bills now face the twin budgetary hurdles of PAYGO, the statutory requirement that increases in mandatory spending must be completely offset by either equal mandatory spending reductions or new revenue increases; and House CUTGO rules, which preclude the use of revenue increases and require that only cuts in mandatory spending may offset spending increases. As I mentioned, PAYGO is a statutory requirement that must be followed, and waivers to the House rule are rare.
Recently, the news reported on the excessive and inappropriate use of funds by a government agency. How does the Judiciary police itself?
The AO conducts financial audits, program reviews, assessments, and evaluations to promote effectiveness, efficiency and economy in both court and AO operations. These initiatives are essential components of the Judiciary's accountability program.
Court audits are conducted on a four-year cycle for most courts, and on 30-month cycles for larger courts. In 2011, the AO issued final reports for 69 cyclical financial audits of the courts and completed 42 other financial audits.
The AO conducts operational and administrative reviews of court units on request from chief judges and court unit executives, as well as regular required reviews of probation, pretrial services and defender offices. These reviews result in reports and recommendations that advise on more effective practices, recommend improved procedures and management structures, and assist the court unit in complying with statutory responsibilities, Judicial Conference policy, or guidance from the AO. Last year 52 such reviews were conducted. In addition, several significant contracts were audited by an independent company, to assess compliance with Judiciary policies and contract terms and conditions, and to verify costs claimed are allowable, reasonable and supported.
We recently updated our internal control policies. These policies provide reasonable assurance that the Judiciary's assets are protected from error, fraud, waste, or abuse, that operations are efficient, and financial reports are accurate and reliable.
We also publicize the channels available to Judiciary employees to report allegations of fraud, waste and abuse.
What are your goals as Director of the Administrative Office?
Given the present economic climate, my long-term goal is to assure that the Judiciary remains able to perform its critical functions. As Director, I believe the AO must continue to evolve to meet the changing needs of the Judicial Branch.
However, my concerns go beyond the potential impact of funding shortfalls on court operations. There is the issue of our independence. We recently have witnessed unusually vitriolic attacks against the courts in general, and specific judges, for decisions they have made. As judges, we certainly expect criticism of our decisions from time to time. However, the decibel level and the nature and tone of these criticisms has gone beyond what I think is reasonable and productive. I hope we will return to our nation's tradition of robust yet civil discourse.
I am committed to the AO's continued leadership and support in helping the Judicial Branch maintain our tradition of excellence. I am proud of the AO and its work. I think we will see our staff at their best in these challenging times. And I am convinced that we are up to the task before us.