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Judicial Conference of the United States

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The Judicial Conference of the United States formulates the administrative policies for the federal courts. The Judicial Conference also makes recommendations on a wide range of topics that relate to the federal courts. The conference is chaired by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Other members include the chief judge of each federal judicial circuit, one district judge from each federal judicial circuit, and the chief judge of the U.S. Court of International Trade.

The Judicial Conference was created in response to a need for uniformity in rules and procedures in the federal court system. In the early 1920s, Chief Justice WILLIAM H. TAFT, of the Supreme Court, led a reform effort that urged centralized review of federal district courts. Until that time the procedures and practices in federal trial courts varied widely from circuit to circuit, causing confusion among attorneys and judges. The result of the reform effort was the passage in 1922 of a federal statute that created the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges (Pub. L. No. 67-297, 423 Stat. 837, 838). The Conference of Senior Circuit Judges was renamed the Judicial Conference of the United States in 1948 (Act of June 25, 1948, ch. 646, 62 Stat. 902, § 331 [codified as amended at 28 U.S.C.A. § 331 (1988)]).

The Judicial Conference is a creation of Congress, and it has only the powers that Congress gives it. Its membership and duties have been expanded by Congress, but its primary missions have remained the same.

The Judicial Conference performs two major functions. The first is to study and offer improvements on federal court rules and procedures. These rules and procedures cover matters ranging from the sentencing of a criminal defendant to the service of a complaint and court summons on a civil defendant. The second major function of the Judicial Conference is to supervise the administration of the federal courts.

In its administrative capacity, the Judicial Conference oversees the ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE OF THE U.S. COURTS. This is the administrative nerve center of the federal courts. The Judicial Conference formulates the fiscal and personnel policies for the federal courts, and the Administrative Office implements those policies.

The Judicial Conference also reviews orders that judicial councils for the federal circuits issue on complaints of judicial misconduct or judicial disability, and it may reassign federal judges to different federal courts. The final decision on administrative matters that are not covered by existing statutes, rules, and regulations is made by the judicial council of the appropriate federal circuit.

The Judicial Conference recommends ways to improve rules and procedures in the federal courts. Its recommendations do not carry the force of law, but the conference is widely recognized as the authority on federal court rules and procedures.

The Judicial Conference makes yearly suggestions on legislation to Congress and recommendations on federal court rules to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court fashions the rules for federal courts and submits them to Congress for final approval. The attorney general of the United States, by request of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, is required to report to the Judicial Conference on the business of the federal courts. Under the Judicial Conference statute, 28 U.S.C.A. 331, the attorney general's reports must discuss with particularity the progress of cases in which the U.S. government is a party.

The Judicial Conference may offer its opinion on legislation passed by Congress that affects the rules and procedures of the federal courts. For example, in 1990 the Federal Courts Study Commission of the Judicial Conference released a study that was critical of federal legislation on mandatory minimum sentences for criminal defendants. Also in the 1990s, the Judicial Conference publicly opposed federal legislation that limited the right of a criminal defendant to file HABEAS CORPUS petitions in federal court. For persons in prison, habeas corpus petitions are generally the last chance for court review of their criminal conviction.

The Judicial Conference has established committees that specialize in certain topics, including court schedules (known as dockets), court budgets, judicial conduct, and the disclosure of finances by judges and the federal courts. Other committees supervise the support of specialized federal court features, such as the offices of public defenders, PROBATION officers, and magistrates (judicial officers who make decisions on pretrial matters).

Although the power of the Judicial Conference is limited to administrative matters, these matters can be controversial and far reaching. For example, the Judicial Conference has authority over the presence of cameras in federal courtrooms. In 1994 it voted to discontinue a three-year experiment allowing cameras to film civil trials in some federal courts. A majority of the Judicial Conference members expressed a fear that cameras could affect the outcome of a trial. The decision drew criticism from many legal circles, and in March 1995 the Judicial Conference said that it would reconsider its position on the issue. In March 1996 the Conference decided to ban cameras in all federal courts except for federal appeals courts. The Conference allowed each circuit to decide whether it would allow cameras in its appeals courts.

There have been legislative attempts to compel the federal courts to permit cameras in courtrooms. Legislation was reintroduced in April 2003 that would effectively open federal courtrooms to television and radio coverage. Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) sponsored the legislation in the Senate. Schumer and Grassley's legislation, the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, would also direct the Judicial Conference to draw up nonbinding guidelines that judges can refer to when deciding whether to permit the coverage of a particular case. This legislation is similar to that introduced in 1999 and reintroduced in 2001.

Most states permit some form of electronic coverage of state court proceedings. But under current law, federal courts continue to ban television and radio coverage of federal criminal and civil proceedings at both the trial and appellate levels.

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