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Mail Call! Fix the Court Sends Letters on SCOTUS Budget, Mitigating Cognitive Decline in Federal Judges and Live Audio

Fix the Court sent out letters today hoping to compel the justices to testify on their annual budget and to convince federal appeals courts to create judicial wellness programs and to live-stream argument audio.

The first letter to Rep. Tom Graves, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, asked him and the FSGG ranking member, Rep. Mike Quigley, to get the justices to appear in public to discuss their FY18 budget request. That longstanding tradition was broken on last year when then-Chairman Ander Crenshaw and then-Ranking Member Jose Serrano met privately at the court with Justices Kennedy and Breyer. No readout was given from that meeting, and the public did not even learn of its existence until a news story about it broke weeks later.

“The annual appropriations process is one of the only times all year that the American people, no matter where they live, can hear directly from the justices – live and uncut, thanks to C-SPAN,” FTC executive director Gabe Roth wrote in the letter. “Every federal agency, congressional agency and judicial institution must justify dollars and cents before House and Senate committees; nearly all of them do so in public, and the Supreme Court should not be exempt.”

The second letter, addressed to circuit executives in federal appeals courts, notes that while the 9th and 10th Circuits have created wellness programs to promote cognitive health in their judges, none of the other circuits, to our knowledge, have. The Judicial Conference declined last year to create a nationwide program to foster cognitive health.

“With long-term vacancies and longer life expectancies conspiring to increase the average length of federal judicial service and, with it, the potential for cognitive impairment,” Roth wrote, appeals courts should be “ensuring, via specific programming, that its judges are holding their offices while operating at full mental capacity.”

In fact, the 2006 Breyer Committee report on judicial conduct recommended that “informal efforts” – i.e., those that occur outside the complaint process – be used to “deal with difficult problems of judicial […] disability,” including cognitive decline. But more than a decade on, the public has no sense whether these recommendations have been implemented in the circuits.

Finally, the third letter asked the clerks of the 1st-8th, 10th, D.C. and Federal Circuits Given to live-stream argument audio in its most closely watched cases.

“The constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, the validity of certain voter ID laws, a number of bathroom bills and the routes of multi-state pipelines, for example, are all issues that are expected to be argued in circuit courts later this year that will garner wide public interest,” Roth wrote. “Fix the Court was founded on the belief that the American people would appreciate and respect the federal judiciary so much more if we could more readily see and hear its judges grapple with the most important issues of the day. We never anticipated the judiciary would be under attack as it is now, but in our minds, that only increases the need for greater real-time access to its important work.”

In many respects, circuit courts are far ahead of the Supreme Court in terms of how its judges check for conflicts of interest and report their reimbursed travel expenses. Unlike the high court, which posts oral argument audio online on Friday afternoon, nearly every appeals court posts argument audio within 24 or 48 hours of a case being heard.

That said, only the Ninth Circuit livestreams its hearings. As was noted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar in last week’s confirmation hearing, that court’s Feb. 7 audio stream of the travel ban TRO appeal reached an astounding 137,000 people via the court’s website and 1.5 million more Americans via CNN’s uninterrupted broadcast.

Fix the Court will send an update should we hear back on any of these letters.

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