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Landmark Legislation: Conference of Senior Circuit Judges

Text of Document

42 Stat. 837
September 14, 1922

Responding to a backlog of cases in the federal courts, Congress in 1922 enacted a new form of court administration that advanced the institutionalization of an independent judiciary. The establishment of an annual Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, later to be known as the Judicial Conference of the United States, culminated more than a decade of public debate on the reform of judicial administration. The Conference of Senior Circuit Judges provided the first formal mechanism by which members of the federal judiciary might develop national administrative policies, reassign judges temporarily, and recommend legislation.

Chief Justice William Howard Taft, appointed to the Supreme Court in 1921, had led a public campaign for federal judicial reform since leaving the White House in 1913. Taft proposed the appointment of at-large judges, what he called a "flying squadron," that could be assigned temporarily to congested courts. In Taft's plan, a conference of judges would serve primarily to assess the caseload of the lower courts and assign the at-large judges to courts in need. Taft, supported by a group of federal judges and legal scholars, hoped that the establishment of a more efficient federal judiciary would deflect the efforts of Senator George Norris and others who advocated an end to life tenure on the federal bench and the restriction of the lower federal courts' jurisdiction.

By the time Taft became Chief Justice, the increased caseload resulting from the First World War and the enforcement of Prohibition had contributed to broad support for reform of the federal judiciary. Assuming a role as leader of the judiciary as well as the Supreme Court, Taft joined with Attorney General Harry Daugherty and appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to urge legislation. A large majority in Congress agreed with the need for reform, but both the Senate and the House of Representatives insisted on revising Taft's proposals so that they conformed more closely to the traditions of the federal judiciary.

Congress established an annual conference of the Chief Justice and the senior circuit judge (now called the chief judge) from each judicial circuit and charged the conference with a general mandate to advise on the administrative needs of the federal courts. The act required the senior judge in each district to prepare an annual report of the business of the district's court. The conference would use these reports to prepare suggestions for the temporary transfer of judges, pending the approval of all courts involved. This expansion of the authority to transfer judges fell far short of Taft's concept of a permanent corps of at-large judges. Congress established 24 temporary judgeships, but adhered to the principle of fixed residency for district judges. Congress also declined to make the attorney general a member of the conference, although the act permitted the Chief Justice to request the attorney general to report on the business of the courts. Even without a formal relationship with Congress or the Department of Justice (which then administered the federal courts), the conference offered the judiciary a means of communicating its administrative needs.

Further reading:
Fish, Peter Graham. The Politics of Federal Judicial Administration. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.