“Cosmic” Bob Kerrey’s best decision

At our celebration on Friday, where Senior United States District Judge Joe Bataillon was honored, former United States Senator Bob Kerrey showed up. It is also true that he showed up late. He wore jeans, a sport coat and evidently saw no need for a tie. Further, it is true that Kerrey has a quick wit and poked fun at Judge Bataillon with seeming delight. Joe once served at the Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party in Nebraska. Kerrey and Joe bumped heads more than a few times. But, it was apparent that they remained friends and highly respected each other.

As I watched Kerrey, I thought of all the criticism he had received for being a tad bit strange. Kerrey often acted more like a good looking Buddhist monk with a killer sense of humor than a seasoned pol. Those traits caused supporters and opponents to scratch their heads.

Here are some examples taken from a 2012 article entitled The Return of ‘Cosmic Bob’ written by Robert Costa for the National Review Online:

* Bill Clinton couldn’t stand him. “Something went really bad between them. . . . Kerrey is really quirky and in a way that is off-putting to Clinton on a lot of different levels.” [Jonathan Alter, via Clinton in Exile by Carol Felsenthal]

* His colleagues didn’t “get” him. “Oh, Kerrey, I saw him float over the chamber. He’s communing.” [Trent Lott, via Bill Clinton by Nigel Hamilton]

* He once considered running for mayor of New York. “‘BK is a true existential man,’ Bob Kerrey’s friend Tom Brokaw e-mailed to me last week from Dubai, en route to Kabul. . . . In other words, when Kerrey, president of the New School and former U.S. senator, admitted to the Times that he was thinking about running for mayor only a week or so after he had consented to chair Democrats for Bloomberg, he was reverting to type — a beautiful loose cannon, a gonzo pillar of the Establishment, a restless, discombobulating political freak of the most exquisite and interesting kind.” [New York, May 21, 2005]

* He also mulled writing a “deconstructionist” book about politics. “Before the last election, for instance, he talked to humor writer Patricia Marx about collaborating on a prankish, deconstructionist guidebook to running for president. Quirky enough for you? He also writes poetry, which he illustrates.” [New York, May 21, 2005]

* During his ill-fated presidential run, Kerrey made headlines for telling an off-color joke about lesbians. “Bob Kerrey apologized profusely Tuesday for privately telling another candidate a dirty joke about two lesbians and a third White House hopeful.” [Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1991]

* He had Hollywood hype before he caught Beltway fever, dating actress Debra Winger. “They set off a prairie fire of passion; traipsing off for a spring fling. . . . The press loved the love-bugs. The Omaha World-Herald ran a story comparing the couple to former California Gov. Jerry Brown and singer Linda Ronstadt.” [People, June 6, 1983]

* Democrats have worried that he’s a mystic. “He still cultivates an outsider’s air; some Democrats think of him as the ‘un-politician.’ He lapses from time to time into moments of “cosmic Bob,” putting aside the details of health care, education and foreign policy to talk of God, altruism and the need for spirituality in American politics. Some Democrats worry that they have produced another Jerry Brown, another mystic, when what they need are street-smart pols.” [New York Times Magazine, April 14, 1991]

Image credit: objectiveconservative.blogspot.com

Image credit: objectiveconservative.blogspot.com

For all the jabs directed at Kerrey, he once did something that for my money showed his capacity for greatness. When Kerrey was Governor, and when Attorney General Paul Douglas resigned after losing his law license, Kerrey appointed Robert (Bob) Spire as Attorney General. Spire was a Republican, and Kerrey drew serious fire from those in his own party for that appointment. Spire later went on to serve Senator Kerrey in Washington, D.C.–in a sense, both men were bound together by a concern for the “cosmic.”

Bob Spire did not need and did not want to be Attorney General. Moreover, despite the fact that there was no political upside for Kerrey, Spire was the perfect pick to restore Nebraskans’ confidence in the office of Attorney General.

Spire came from a “white shoe” Republican firm in Omaha. He was financially secure. With undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, there was no doubting his intellect. The fact he was also a CPA said much the same thing. That he was an accomplished pianist who attended the Julliard School of Music set him apart, far apart. from the typical corporate practitioner. His membership in the local Musician’s Union punctuated that point in the most melodic of ways. His service as President of the Nebraska State Bar Association was a testament to the respect he garnered from lawyers throughout the state. That he was a teacher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center exemplified his wide-ranging intellectual interests. That he was known for picking up trash in front of the All Saints Episcopal Church before entering spoke to his commitment as a servant to others in matters both great and small. Upon his death at 68, the pall bearers who carried his casket included the Democrat Kerrey plus the Chair of the Nebraska Republican Party. That Spire earned two purple hearts during the Second World War connected Spire in a profound way to Kerrey who had lost his leg while earning the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Thus, as I watched and listened to “Cosmic Bob” at Judge Bataillon’s ceremony I was thankful to the Senator. Kerrey’s appointment of Bob Spire as Nebraska’s Attorney General proved to me that a concern for all things “cosmic” can turn an ordinary politician into an extraordinary one.



Behind the curtain: Even a small federal district court is a big and complex business

I remember the conversation. It was probably the most important talk I had when I served as Chief Judge.

Judge Bataillon and I were talking. Both of us felt that we did not understand the budget process well enough, and that unintentionally the Clerk’s office, the Probation office, the Pretrial Services office had become fiefdoms where the less the judges knew the better. The more we talked the more a structural image began develop. What if we developed a “shared services” department. That is, a department that would provide the Chief Judge and all the other judges with detailed financial management information and require the court units to shares services with each other while keeping the court units’ operational missions intact.

I asked Joe whether he would head up such an effort. He agreed. Now, I will digress for a moment. Judge Bataillon is a legend back in Washington. If you ask anyone back there about Joe you hear nothing but raves. Joe is known for tackling tough problems and dealing with them in an effective manner. That is why Joe has served on the advisory committee for the national budget and that is why Joe chaired a judicial conference committee on space and facilities. The confidence placed in Joe by the Chief Justice and the Administrative Office of the United Courts is a testament to Judge Bataillon. In short, Joe gets things done with a minimum of strife and a maximum of consensus.

So, Joe set off. He gathered the court unit executives (Clerk of Court, Chief Probation Officer and Chief Pretrial Services Officer) together plus their deputies and pitched the idea to them. Those folks were understandably hesitant, but agreeable to pursuing the matter as long as no commitments were required. They trusted Joe. About a year later, after a lot of research, travels throughout the country to see how other court’s functioned, and a lot of bargaining our “shared services” department became a reality. In fact, it has now become a national model. This is due entirely to Judge Bataillon and our unit executives who have labored long and hard to make this new approach work seamlessly.

“Shared services” works like this.  The court unit executives sit as joint managers of the business side of the court. Many services are now shared between the units (take IT for example) and each unit contributes a portion of their budge to receive those service. Additionally, the budget of each unit is essentially collapsed into one integrated budget for the entire court. Money can be moved back and forth as the need arises. Financial controls were instituted* and a budget committee of the active district judges was established. Each quarter the budget committee meets with the court unit executives and our financial staff to review the budget and to determine future planning scenarios.

A word about budget decentralization is in order. Each federal district court receives an annual allotment from Washington for the entire operation of the court except for rent* and several other minor categories. With certain minor restrictions, the local court can do with the allotment as that district thinks best. There is a huge problem however. Congress almost never gives the federal judiciary an appropriation until it is too late to plan. The shared services staff is therefore tasked with predicting the future. This is an enormously difficult task, and it requires the aid of real financial professionals. Luckily, and as you shall see, we have two men who fit that bill perfectly.

Let’s talk scale. We are categorized as a “small” court back in Washington. Nonetheless, our budget runs into the tens of millions of dollars. $11,331,875 to be precise this year. Excluding the Executive Summary, the active judges receive on a quarterly basis a packet of information in Excel form that typically runs 30 pages or so long. It pinpoints where we are now on spending compared to our budget and forecasts out for two years (using complex alternative scenarios) where we will be in the future. It is a very sophisticated document that allows the judges and the court unit executives to make plans without guessing (too much). The quarterly meeting with the judges and the court unit executives (the Budget Committee Meeting) has become, in my opinion, the single most important effort our court engages in when it comes to management of the business side of our court.

Of course, the “Shared Services” department also helps the court units “share” services. Need a cellphone? Call the fellow who does procurement for the entire court. He knows the procurement regulations, and he is an expert at getting you what you need, in compliance with the regulations, at a cost that is good for the taxpayer in a speedy manner.

OK. Now you have a sense of “shared services.”  I next want to introduce you to the two men who have significant overall management responsibilities in that area. I asked these men to prepare their own statements, and I reproduce them below.

Pat and Terry work in the shared services structure of the United States District Court, providing support to District, Pretrial Services, and Probation. On behalf of the Court Unit Executives, Pat and Terry develop and present budget reports to the Active Article III Judges on a quarterly basis. Reports included in the budget package include an executive summary; a financial oversight report showing the budget condition of each separate court unit and as a combined entity; a workload report showing trends in staffing; as well as spending and discretionary plans for each court unit. In addition, one of their most challenging tasks is forecasting and presenting reports on future-year allotment projections (salaries, in particular), which are subject to partisan politics, the economy, and an ever-changing allotment distribution structure.

Terry Brownfield has a B.S. in both Accounting and Business Administration. He has the Certified Management Accountant designation and has passed the Certified Public Accounting examination. He has 35 years of accounting experience including as a Controller for a manufacturing company and the last ten years as a budget analyst for the court. His responsibilities for the court include budget preparation and monitoring as well as payroll forecasting and reconciliation. He also performs internal control reviews for various court departments, adhering to the motto “ In God we trust… all others get audited”.



Terry takes pride in providing management with accurate and substantive information to allow management to make good decisions and in applying his accounting background to business situations.



Pat Williamson is the administrative supervisor for the shared services units and has worked for the courts for 22 years, including stints in procurement and budget. Pat has a B.S. in Finance from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Pat manages the business functions of the court, including managing professional staff in finance, budget, procurement, property, space and facilities, internal controls and audits. Pat has worked with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts as a subject-matter expert and court mentor for the national implementation of the Internal Control Evaluation (ICE) system and development of the Self-Assessment modules used by courts during their annual internal audits.

Pat and Terry are treasures. But we would have no need for them without Judge Joe Bataillon and our court unit executives. Without them, “shared services” would not have been implemented. They had the courage and foresight to create and then implement a truly unique method of managing the business side of our little court. Like Nebraskans of the 19th century, they are pioneers.


*From time to time, our court, like all other district courts, is audited by outside auditors without hardly any advance notice. These audits are stressful and similar to audits one is familiar with at banks or other large businesses. Did you know that there are “Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards?” We were given a completely clean bill of health at our last audit–no exceptions. That is a huge and virtually unheard of achievement. In a moment, you will meet our “internal auditor” who pushes the managers to be prepared for an outside audit any time.

**Our buildings are “owned” by GSA. Rent to the GSA is paid annually out of funds held in Washington. Thus, we don’t have to budget for rent, although maintenance and upkeep costs are sometimes shifted to the local court.

Judge Joe Bataillon announces he will take senior status October 3, 2014

Our Clerk’s office issued a press release today. In pertinent part, it reads as follows

District Judge Joseph F. Bataillon today announced his plan to retire from regular active service as a United States District Judge for the District of Nebraska, effective October 3, 2014. Judge Bataillon will take senior status on that date, but will maintain a full caseload.

Commenting on Judge Bataillon’s years of service to the federal court, Chief District Judge Laurie Smith Camp stated, “Judge Bataillon’s has had a very distinguished judicial career since his appointment in 1997, including seven years as this district’s Chief Judge, and twelve years in national leadership roles–guiding the federal judiciary’s policy on budget, finance, economy, security, and space and facilities. We are grateful that Judge Bataillon has chosen to remain with the Court in senior status, continuing to build on his impressive legacy.”

Judge Bataillon’s retirement to senior status will create a vacancy on the district court bench. President Obama will nominate Judge Bataillon’s successor, who then must be confirmed by the United States Senate. The district court judges have stressed to Nebraska’s two United States Senators, Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, the importance of nominating and confirming an able successor to replace Judge Bataillon. Currently, Nebraska’s criminal felony per-judge caseload ranks eighth out of the nation’s 94 districts. For the 12-month period ending June 30, 2013, the average federal district judge handled 121 criminal cases, while the average Nebraska federal district judge handled 237 criminal cases. Nebraska ranks seventh in the nation for supervised release hearings in criminal cases. The average federal district judge handled 37 supervised release hearings,while
the average Nebraska federal district judge handled 106. In light of these statistics and Nebraska’s loss of its fourth active federal district judgeship in 2007, upon the retirement of the late Judge Thomas Shanahan, Judge Bataillon’s successor will need to assume and manage a busy docket.

Judge Joe has been an especially able United States District Judge and a power for good at the local and national level regarding the administration of the federal courts. In my opinion, he was the best Chief Judge our court ever had. Most importantly, he is a really fine person.


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