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Friday, February 10, 2017

Managing the Vacancy Crisis: An Example of Resource Dependence in Federal Courts

One of the fundamental premises of modern organizational theory is that most organizations are resource-dependent; that is, they rely on the external environment for goods, labor, financing, or other resources necessary to complete their mission.  Factories require raw materials, nonprofits require sources of funding, and government agencies require taxpayer dollars and at least some modicum of public support.

Court systems are heavily resource-dependent in their own right, perhaps unusually so.  To serve their mission (which, we’ll stipulate for now, is the resolution of legal disputes brought before them), courts require a wide range of both tangible and intangible resources: funding, staffing, physical space, constitutional and statutory authorization to conduct their business, a regular flow of cases into the system, public participation (in the form of jurors), and public support (in the form of legitimacy).  If any one of these resources dries up, a court’s ability to perform its mission is compromised.

Perhaps no resource dependency is as striking as judicial staffing.  Many organizations depend on others for the resources or permission to hire key employees, but typically they have some say in who actually gets hired.  Courts, by contrast, are at the mercy of the public and/or the other branches of government when it comes to adding or replacing their own members.  In most state court systems, periodic judicial elections (whether contestable or of the retention variety) at least provide the judicial branch with some regularity as to the timing of replacing judges, although elections can also create massive turnover on the bench. 

In federal courts, where a sustained vacancy crisis has led to nearly 120 unfilled Article III judgeships as of this writing, the deficiency is especially pronounced.  Barack Obama showed little interest in quickly filling lower court judgeships during the first year of his presidency, and Donald Trump has not indicated much greater interest in the early weeks of his administration. 

Still, the courts are expected to do their job.  And over the years, the federal courts as an organization has developed a variety of ways—some public and direct, others more private and subtle—for managing inconsistent periods of this particular resource flow.

A few examples, from most direct to most subtle:

Lobbying Congress.  The Judicial Conference of the United States has formally lobbied Congress for additional resources, including more judges, since at the least the 1950s.  Other forms of lobbying may be less formal but no less obvious: the Chief Justice, for example, dedicated his 2008 Year-End Report to describing the resource deficiencies in the federal judiciary.  

Lobbying may seem an straightforward strategy, but it must be attempted carefully.  First, any lobbying must be done so as not to compromise the courts’ public legitimacy.  Legitimacy is the single most important resource for all courts (as it is for many organizations; more on that in a later post), and if courts are viewed as too demanding, greedy, or insensitive to public needs, asking for additional resources may backfire.  As a result, a typical strategy for the courts is to argue that they are already working at peak efficiency given the circumstances, and are simply requesting the minimum additional resources necessary for them to serve the public adequately. But the “we are doing more with less” argument itself must be carefully tailored.  It is not enough to show efficiency; it must be the kind of efficiency that Congress approves of.  Demonstrating, for example, that the federal courts guided lawsuits challenging federal legislation to trial at record speed probably won’t impress Congress or encourage it to allocate more resources to the judiciary.

Internal allocation of existing resources.  The courts have developed a number of strategies for reallocating judicial resources internally when judgeships remain unfilled.  They rely extensively on judges with senior status to handle cases.  They increasingly ask magistrate judges or special masters to handle particular pretrial matters or ADR, freeing up district judge time for dispositive issues and trial.  Some district judges (or even appellate judges) sit as visitors in other districts, often handling matters by telephone and videoconference.  Internal procedures to consolidate cases or create MDL actions also permit the courts to shuffle cases to the judges equipped to hear them quickly.

Cooptation.  Resource Dependence Theory, one of the branches of modern organizational theory, predicts that organizations  will take on additional tasks outside of their core mission if doing so allows them influence and regularize the flow of needed resources.  These additional tasks are known as buffering and bridging strategies.  One such strategy is cooptation: the focal organization invites key members of outside groups to participate in its decision-making process in order to invest those outside groups in the organization’s survival.  In the private or nonprofit sector, this may take the form of interlocking boards of directors or shared consultancies.  Courts cannot adopt this particular framework (although Chief Justice Burger unsuccessfully floated the idea of a judiciary council with members from all three branches in the 1970s), but the federal courts have included representatives from Congress and the Department of Justice on various Judicial Conference committees, either through formal membership or regular observer status.  Similarly, the courts’ relationship with the ABA and other groups can translate into explicit advocacy for more judicial resources, even without the courts explicitly requesting it.

Rulemaking.  Organizational buffering activities cannot dictate the flow of resources by themselves, but they can flatten the impact of variations in resource flow.  Another example of a buffering practice (and the topic of my current research) is court-controlled rulemaking.  Procedural rules can be used as a docket control technique in times of high judicial vacancies, especially to the extent they allow the court to dismiss, resolve, or otherwise hand off the case without a significant investment of judicial resources.  Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that increase judicial discretion in case management, discovery, and referral to alternative dispute resolution all give judges more flexibility to control their dockets; the structure of the Rules Enabling Act largely assures that the judiciary itself can drive the amendment process as needed.  

To be clear, I am not suggesting that docket control is the sole (or even primary) motivation for rules amendments—the rules committees and Judicial Conference surely have all users of the civil justice system in mind when they propose amendments to existing rules.  But the power to promulgate procedural rules should be recognized as giving the federal courts a rare outlet for docket management that is predominantly within their control.

This is already long for a blog post, but I could go on.  The more general point is that uncertainty surrounding a single resource—active Article III judges—leads to a robust set of organizational responses.  These responses all aim to increase certainty in the environment in which the courts operate, either by obtaining more resources or by creating mechanisms for coping with the inconsistent flow of those resources.

Next: What organizational theory teaches about the pressures on courts to conform to each others’ practices.

Posted by Jordan Singer on February 10, 2017 at 02:11 PM in Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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