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Conference of Chief Justices

Further Readings

Improving the state judicial system is the mission of the Conference of Chief Justices. Founded in 1949 as an association of chief justices of state supreme courts, the conference tackles organizational, administrative, and procedural issues at its biannual meetings and through standing and special committees. It is governed by a board of directors. Long regarded as an austere group with narrow concerns, the conference emerged in a broader role in the 1990s. Pressing concerns about a logjam of cases in state courts led it to open a new partnership with federal courts, resulting in the first-ever meeting between the highest judicial officers of both court systems in 1990. More dramatically, the conference broke its long-standing silence on politics: it entered a heated battle with the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT over ethics rules, made outspoken attacks on federal HEALTH CARE and crime legislation, and began earnestly LOBBYING Congress. This bolder identity caused ripples in the legal community as the conference announced its willingness to be a political player with the help of its research and lobbying arm, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).

Traditionally, the Conference of Chief Justices tended to looked inward. Its membership includes, besides state supreme court justices, the highest judicial officers of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories, and each jurisdiction has long faced similar concerns. State court systems are simple only in appearance: every system of trial, appellate, and supreme courts requires vast organizational resources. The conference was founded to share ideas, compare methods, and brainstorm new solutions to managing these behemoths. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, meetings addressed matters ranging from the expanding role of the court administrator to the problems of caseload management and rules and methods of procedure. Not all these concerns were limited to the courts. The conference reacted in dismay to the ruling in the 1984 case of Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 104 S. Ct. 1970, 80 L. Ed. 2d 565 (1984), which overturned the historic doctrine of JUDICIAL IMMUNITY and permitted attorneys to collect awards against state judges, and it began an ongoing lobbying effort aimed at having Congress restore judicial immunity.

The conference's horizons started to broaden in the 1980s, as changes in federal policy began overloading state courts. The states have always handled the vast majority of civil and criminal cases, but the so-called war on drugs filled state court dockets with more cases than they could reasonably handle. By 1990, the conference's president, Chief Justice Vincent L. McKusick, of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, noted that Arizona's trial courts processed more drug cases annually than did all federal trial courts combined. The conference's response was to open a dialogue with the JUDICIAL CONFERENCE OF THE UNITED STATES, its federal partner. In September 1990, the highest officials of both systems met for the first time at the national level to address mutual concerns about drug and TORT cases. They formed the Federal-State Judicial Council to continue to seek solutions.

By 1994, the conference was taking bolder steps in a long-running dispute with the Justice Department. As far back as 1989, then attorney general RICHARD THORNBURGH had suggested changing the Justice Department's code of ethics to stop following Rule 4.2 of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Upheld by the states and most federal courts, this rule governs the communication of lawyers in disputes: it specifically bars lawyers from communicating with a party who is represented by another lawyer, without that lawyer's consent. The Justice Department believed that the rule hampered federal prosecutors in their investigations, and in early 1994, Attorney General JANET RENO said the U.S. Constitution exempted federal prosecutors from the ethics rules of state bar associations. In August 1994, the conference passed a resolution blasting the Justice Department's position and advising state bars and supreme courts to enforce Rule 4.2. Conference members accused the department of blatant illegality, and legal observers expected the matter ultimately to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although the conference had traditionally refrained from taking overtly political positions, members decided in 1994 to enter the fray. Two issues troubled them: health care reform and the crime bill, both put forward by the administration of President BILL CLINTON. Using the research facilities of the NCSC, the conference claimed that health care reform would fill state courts with 90 million new claims. And in a strongly worded resolution, it lashed out at the original text of the crime bill for "indiscriminate federalization of crimes, the needless disruption of effective state and local law enforcement efforts, and the inefficient use of the special but limited resources of the federal courts." Going beyond harsh criticism, the conference directed the NCSC to lobby members of Congress in what became a partially successful effort at trimming the bill.

This departure from tradition excited the legal community. The National Law Journal spotted "new-found muscle and aggression" in the conference's activities, and other observers saw potential for the conference to become a major player in political debate. Not wishing to be viewed as a partisan organization, the conference itself vowed to limit its lobbying to issues that affected JUDICIAL ADMINISTRATION.

The conference maintained a lower profile since the mid-1990s and reaffirmed its commitment to improving the administration of justice. In 2002, it passed a resolution endorsing a report on public access to court information that seeks to bring uniform practices to the judiciary. In addition, the conference endorsed a resolution that seeks to make the system more accessible to self-represented litigants. With the precipitous decline in state government budgets in 2002 and 2003, the conference began to explore how far the judicial branch must go in sharing the financial burden with the other two branches of government.

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