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Federal Judicial Center Celebrates 50 Years: General History


American democracy is founded on the rule of law. The judicial system is the source and substance of that rule. Yet, all too often, the courts of America are congested, their dockets overcrowded, their judges overworked . . . Overburdened judicial machinery cannot do the work of democracy. Today, I sign a bill which, for the first time, will give us an instrument to assure an efficient, smooth-running judiciary—a system equal to the modern and changing society it must serve.
This bill establishes a Federal Judicial Center.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, December 27, 1967

For fifty years the Federal Judicial Center has endeavored to live up to the lofty goals President Johnson set for it.

In early 1967, at the urging of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended the establishment of a Federal Judicial Center. The Conference and the Chief Justice saw a need for an institution dedicated to helping the federal courts to identify and implement effective practices and policies to manage the increasing volume and complexity of the courts’ workload. After hearings and minor revisions to the Conference’s proposal, Congress passed legislation creating the Center and President Johnson signed it on December 20, 1967.
The Act stated: “There is established within the judicial branch of the Government a Federal Judicial Center, whose purpose it shall be to further the development and adoption of improved judicial administration in the courts of the United States.” The Act assigned several functions to the Center, including: 
  • to conduct research and study of the operation of the courts of the United States
  • to stimulate, create, develop, and conduct programs of continuing education for personnel of the judicial branch of the Government
  • [to] study and determine ways in which automatic data processing and systems procedures may be applied to the administration of the courts of the United States.
The Center was established as a separate agency within the judicial branch, neither part of the Administrative Office of United States Courts nor under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Conference. Administrative Office Director Warren Olney, judges on the Judicial Conference, and others advanced several reasons for this independence: to keep Center resources focused on its specific missions and not diverted to regular operational functions in the Administrative Office; to enable the Center to develop special expertise in research, education, automation, and related fields; and to give the Center the latitude and detachment to examine and, when appropriate, question existing practices and policies. The Center was given no authority to make or enforce policy for the judiciary; its influence has depended on the significance, quality, and integrity of its work in support of the federal courts.
The Center was, and is, governed by its Board, which originally consisted of the Chief Justice, two circuit and three district judges, and the director of the Administrative Office. Congress amended the Center’s statute in 1979 to add a bankruptcy judge to the Board, and in 1996 to add a magistrate judge—changes that reflected the increased responsibilities, numbers, and stature of these judges in the federal judiciary.
In February 1968, the Judicial Conference elected two circuit and three district judges to the Center’s Board, and in March the Board, chaired by Chief Justice Warren, met and selected retired Justice Tom C. Clark as the Center’s first director. 
For several months, Justice Clark and his assistant, Alice O’Donnell, were the only Center employees, and the Center’s first appropriation was for $40,000. Even with these limited resources, in 1968 the Center held three orientation programs for new district judges with assistance from the Administrative Office, started work on a benchbook for district judges, and began several other research projects. To assist the Center, the Board established six advisory committees, consisting mostly of judges, for operations, research, education, innovation, federal–state issues, and library and publications. The Center has continued to rely on advisory committees of various types throughout its existence. 
In November 1968, the Center, which by then had 10 employees, moved into the historic Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square near the White House.
In its early years, the Center grew fairly rapidly. By 1980, the Center’s appropriation was $8,849,000 ($27,610,000 in 2017 dollars) and the Center had 117 full-time staff. Since then its appropriation (in constant dollars) and staff have, with some fluctuations, remained fairly close to these figures: $28,335,000 and 122 in 2017. 
Since Justice Clark, the Center has had nine directors, all but one of whom have been circuit or district judges. Each director has left a personal imprint on the Center; these can be traced through their messages in the Center’s Annual Reports.
Throughout its five decades of existence, research and education have been the core of the Center’s work.
Center research rigorously examined what worked, what didn’t, and what might work better, in multiple areas, from case management to supervision of offenders, and, recently, juror use of social media. Research reports assisted the Judicial Conference to make decisions about changes in the rules of procedure and evidence, requests for new judgeships, and allocation of resources, to name a few examples. Center research was instrumental in producing educational materials, such as the widely used Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence and the Manual for Complex Litigation.
Center education has always been designed to impart the best of what we know and to ensure that judges and others understand the legal and ethical requirements of their work. The first educational programs were for judges, but since the early 1970s the Center provided a wide range of programs for all types of court staff.  Some programs were offered in partnership with law schools and bar or other professional associations. From the beginning, the Center augmented in-person workshops and seminars with other educational resources: paper publications and, as technology advanced, audio- and videotapes, satellite television broadcasts, and online programs and resources.
In its first twenty-five years, the Center carried on a third major function: the development of automated systems for the courts. During the 1970s, the Center, working with the Administrative Office, developed the federal courts’ original automated case-management systems, and it continued to refine and expand these in the 1980s. Once these systems were fully developed the Center transferred responsibility (and in some cases budget and staff) to the Administrative Office for managing them. By the early 1990s these systems had become so big and so fully integrated into the daily operations of the courts that it no longer made sense to bifurcate development from operations and administration. Consequently, by agreement with the Administrative Office and the Judicial Conference, the Center ceased developing automation tools for the courts. Instead its information technology staff focused on the Center’s own needs, including distance learning.
From its earliest days, the Center has been a conduit for and a provider of information for the judiciary. As a national agency, whose research and education work often brought together judges and staff from courts around the country, the Center became a means of communication and a repository of information about ideas, experiences, and events from across the system. One rich source of information about the courts was a monthly publication, The Third Branch, produced by the Center with the Administrative Office. The Center also collected, in paper, later in videotape, and then in digital form sample documents, commentary, tips, and other information from judges and staff and disseminated it throughout the judiciary. 
In 1988, on the recommendation of the Judicial Conference and the Center, Congress added the study of federal judicial history to the Center’s missions. The Center has produced a wealth of materials about the origins and growth of the federal judiciary. These materials are widely used by judges, scholars, journalists, and others, and are the most heavily used section of the Center’s public website.
In 1988, Congress also authorized creation of the Federal Judicial Center Foundation, which may accept gifts in support of the Center’s work. Foundation funds have never amounted to more than a tiny fraction of the Center’s annual appropriation, but they have made possible a variety of educational programs, on topics such as neuroscience, environmental law, alternative dispute resolution, and others, that the Center would not have been able to produce otherwise.
In 1992, Congress added another mission, to assist other agencies and organizations in providing information and advice to help improve the administration of justice in courts of foreign countries and to acquire information about judicial administration elsewhere to use in the Center’s other missions. Since its earliest days, the Center had conducted briefings for foreign visitors. With the end of the Cold War, interest in assisting other countries with the rule of law and judicial administration increased, and the work of the Center, in cooperation with other agencies, such as the State Department, grew substantially since then.
The Center also moved in 1992, from the Dolley Madison House, which it had outgrown, to its current home, the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building near Capitol Hill. The Marshall Building also houses the Administrative Office, the United States Sentencing Commission, and the United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.
As the Center helped courts to grow and adapt to changing conditions, so did the Center itself evolve. By the 1980s, the Center’s appropriation did not keep pace with the growth of the federal judiciary or the increased demand for Center services. In response, Center adopted practices and priorities consistent with its resources. As noted earlier, the Center’s permanent staff has generally ranged from 120 to 130 employees, although the period from 1993–2003 saw somewhat higher numbers. The majority of Center employees have been and are professionals, with advanced degrees in law, education, social science, and other fields. Staff turnover has been low, with the average time on staff at the end of 2017 a little over fifteen years. While its size limits the number of programs and projects the Center can undertake, the Center’s expertise, experience and absence of internal bureaucracy have afforded it the ability to respond quickly to the judiciary’s changing needs.
The Center has made some difficult choices through the years. As described earlier, in the early 1990s the Center relinquished a role in developing court technology. Similarly, during the 1990s, the Center ceded to the Administrative Office responsibility for training on some administrative matters. This was the result of the growth of the courts: in 1970, the courts’ appropriation was $868 million, and the courts employed just under 7,000 people. In 1990, the appropriation was around $3.2 billion, and there were 21,500 employees. This expansion necessitated decentralization of many functions previously performed directly by the Administrative Office, including budget management, procurement, facilities, security, human resources, and information technology. Courts needed people trained in these functions, and the Center, which had not grown at the same pace, lacked resources to do all of this training. Consequently, by the 1990s, the Administrative Office was assuming some of these training responsibilities. This led to some friction over which agency was responsible for what, but by the 2000s these differences had been worked out.
Although choices like these were difficult, they enabled the Center to focus on, and enhance, education in critical areas—notably, sensitive areas in which the Center’s independence lent particular credibility: judicial education and education for court attorneys supporting the adjudicative process; leadership and management education for chief judges, court executives, and court managers and supervisors; criminal justice education for judges and probation and pretrial services officers; and education on particular topics for all court employees, including ethics and preventing workplace harassment. In-person workshops and seminars remained a mainstay throughout the Center’s existence, but the Center constantly expanded its use of technology to provide more educational resources to judges and court employees.
The Center’s research mission also evolved. During its first twenty-five years the Center, pursuant to its enabling statute, made occasional recommendations based on its research. In the 1990s, this practice was criticized because it seemed to make the Center an advocate for particular policies, contrary to its neutral role, and to put undue focus on any decision not to follow a Center recommendation. Therefore, the Center’s Board agreed that the Center would not include recommendations with its research reports. While controversial at the time, this practice has served to reinforce the Center’s reputation as an honest broker.
Perhaps not coincidentally, more and more of the Center’s research has been at the request of the Judicial Conference—sometimes at the behest of Congress. Recent examples include a study of courtroom use and an ongoing study of a congressionally mandated patent project. In 2017, over 80% of the Center’s research projects were initiated by the Judicial Conference.
All that the Center has accomplished in pursuit of the goals President Johnson, Congress, and the judiciary set for it would not have been possible without the talent and dedication of the people who have worked for and with the Center during its half-century of existence. The 122 people who work at the Center today are proud to carry on that legacy.