U.S. District Judge David Carter ruled on Wednesday that U.S. District Judge Henry Friedman violated federal guidelines by packing three of the courts in Houston with administrative and visiting judges.
The Supreme Court in 1982 established that while the en banc court panels can be diverse, their membership should be limited to one district judge and two visiting judges. But the practice has expanded dramatically since then, making the court assemblies now full of people from all over the country, according to Carter’s decision, which dealt with travel schedules.
The convenience of packing the courts at the behest of some powerful interests has made them “magnificent,” said Cynthia Lusher, a professor of law at the Texas Tech University School of Law. She declined to comment because she was not yet ready to discuss Carter’s ruling.“The seats themselves are state-appointed,” Lusher said. “There has never been a precedent to ensure that everyone in those seats received the same consideration.”
Jody Jackson, who has served on the seven-member appeals-court panel since 2011, said Carter’s ruling falls short of governing practices elsewhere.
“I think it’s a good judgement because it directly takes away the way everyone has traditionally approached the court structure in the United States,” Jackson said.The appeals court composed of three judges, who sit with Friedman on the three-judge panel, can come from almost any state or in any locale, and do not require any political restraint. Jackson said that this makes the court “fantastic.”
The Supreme Court in 2015 reversed a lower court’s finding that the “minimal compliance” was excessive. But that ruling applies only to administrative judges, which are often appointed by the local court; judges on the courts themselves are made independent by the court. The justices declined to comment.“It’s a wonderful forum,” said Lusher, who served as a state assistant attorney general in her previous job. “It really is an excellent model of the American judicial system.”
Before the ruling, Jackson has complained that the two judges of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, on the western side of Chicago, sometimes are already on the appellate circuit, which covers the eastern side of the city. On Monday, Jackson said the backlog of cases generated by those judges — many of which have no appellate precedent in place — could affect the flow of cases to the full appeals court.
As an executive with 27 years of experience in administrative law, Jackson said the lawyer he worked for during his time in the state attorney general’s office had “always been bullish” on giving judges a wider range of experience and backgrounds. But he agreed that that was not the case with the 7th Circuit, because the judges he worked with, who were all from other parts of the country, have specialized experience that is difficult to delegate to the ordinary judges on the circuit.
The appeals court has been praised for prioritizing equal representation across geographic lines. It is the largest appellate court in the country, according to a recent news release from the American Bar Association.“A judicial panel that covers the entire state has the benefit of having judges from every part of the state,” said Patrick J. Brady, an adviser to the 7th Circuit. “In fact, when the circuits merge, so do courts with contiguous boundaries.”