A peek behind the curtain: The governance of an Article III district court

One of the purposes of this blog is to describe in realistic terms what really goes on in the federal trial courts.  In that regard, how each of the federal trial courts govern themselves is frequently unknown to the public, and has received little academic interest. Moreover, and you would only know this from the inside, the governance of a federal trial court can be messy, nasty and very controversial.  In this post, I want to briefly describe how our court governs itself.

Unlike virtually any other federal trial court with which I am familiar, the District of Nebraska uses a wide open and democratic form of government. Anyone may read our governance order on our external web site (here).

The important elements of our governance structure can be described as follows:

  • Although the statutes, in very brief and minimalistic terms, provide that the chief judge and the active judges have the power to govern the court, these judges have committed to an open and inclusive structure.  While there is a “safety valve” to insure that in rare cases those judges could override our open structure, that has never happened.
  • We meet four times a year as a group.  That group is called the Nebraska Judicial Council.  Every matter of significance goes through the Nebraska Judicial Council.
  • Every judge–active Article III judge, senior Article III judge, magistrate judge, and bankruptcy judge, can put an item on the agenda.
  • Every judge has one vote.  The majority governs.
  • The agency heads and their deputies–the clerk of the district court, the clerk of the bankruptcy court, the chief probation officer, and the chief pretrial services officer–actively participate in the meeting, although they do not vote.
  • The United States Attorney, and her deputy, the Federal Public Defender, and his deputy, the Chair of the Federal Practice Committee (representing lawyers who practice in our court), the Criminal Justice Act panel representative (representing private lawyers who take criminal appointments), and the United States Marshal and his deputy, actively participate in the meeting, although they do not vote.
  • Real debate goes on in these meeting, and they are often blunt and heated.  Only personnel matters or especially sensitive core judicial matters are debated in executive session where only the judges are present. Executive sessions are a rare exception and not the rule.
  • Detailed minutes of the meeting of the Nebraska Judicial Council are made available to the participants and every employee of the court.
  • When the Nebraska Judicial Council is not in session, the active district judges serve as an executive committee to decide matters that cannot await Nebraska Judicial Council approval. Those judges come together monthly by phone.  Of course, for day-to-day administrative decisions, the chief judge acts unilaterally.  However, the default is always to take a significant matter to the Nebraska Judicial Council for resolution by all judges rather than having the active district judges or the chief judge act alone.
  • On matters of budget, the active district judges comprise a budget committee staffed by a person trained in finance and another person with a CPA certificate.  Following each meeting of the Nebraska Judicial Council, the budget committee meets and deals with budgetary issues for the quarter and coming years.  Detailed budget packages are presented, and the minutes of the budget committee meeting together with the budget committee documents are made available to every judge.  An agenda item for the budget is a part of each Nebraska Judicial Council meeting, so each judge can raise any concern he or she may have regarding budgetary matters.

I am very proud of how we govern ourselves. It is a system that is inclusive and non-hierarchical.  It presupposes that a federal district court is a joint enterprise–one in which the more key players have a voice the better the enterprise will function. While I don’t propose that our way is a model for other courts, it is worth considering.

Questions?

RGK

4 responses

  1. I am very fortunate to be in a sister court to Nebraska in terms of geography. During my two decades they have been a national leader in terms of court governance, technology, and virtually every other area. It has as fine of trial court judges as any district in the nation. It is a true gem in the federal system. It’s solid and creative innovation right here in the Heartland. We have “borrowed” many of their ideas. There is not a better run court in the nation. Now, if only the Huskers were……….😄

    • Mark,

      You are far too kind.

      As for the Huskers, if only we could pay players, then we would have the best team money could buy. Some things are more important than others.

      All the best.

      RGK

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