Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Court of Federal Claims Anniversary October 4, 2002 (Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Good morning. It is truly an honor to join you today in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the United States Court of Federal Claims, a court that serves a unique function in the American judicial system. The Court of Federal Claims often has been called the conscience of the federal government, a place where citizens hold their government accountable. I join the Bench and Bar of the court in welcoming the judges from around the world who are with us today.
James Madison wrote that, quote, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." Put another way, Madison's point is that the preservation of freedom depends on each branch of government exercising cooperatively its separate powers. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the pursuit of justice.
In order to fulfill the guarantee of equal justice under the law for every American, all the branches of government must work together. The legislature must make the laws that protect the liberty, safety and property of Americans. The executive branch must enforce these laws. And the judiciary must apply the laws by adhering faithfully to the Constitution of the United States, deferring to the explicit stated intent of the legislature, and following precedent.
An essential component of this cooperative pursuit of justice is the selection and confirmation of the men and women who apply the laws and guard the process of American justice. As Alexander Hamilton explained in the Federalist Papers, the Founders envisioned a process in which the President would nominate candidates for the federal bench and the Senate would have a, quote, "powerful, though, in general, a silent" role in confirming the executive's nominees.
But this process, which was designed to ensure the integrity, fitness, and fidelity to the law of the nation's judges, has broken down. There is a crisis in the federal judiciary. President Bush has nominated judges at a record pace and yet the active membership of the federal judiciary is shrinking as the rate of retirement among judges outpaces the Senate's current rate of confirmations.
Chief Justice Rehnquist's concern about the, quote, "alarming number of judicial vacancies," is exacerbated by the inadequate number of federal judgeships. The result is overburdened courts. Mounting caseloads. The breakdown of the administration of justice.
President Bush and the White House staff have worked very hard, as has the Department of Justice, to nominate 127 article III judges. And yet, as of today, there are 77 vacancies out of 862 article III judgeships, a nine percent vacancy rate. Of these current vacancies, 30 have been classified as "judicial emergencies."
You, the Court of Federal Claims, are all too familiar with this frustrating situation. Of 16 active seats, 6 are vacant. And though President Bush has nominated 6 superbly qualified men and women to fill those vacancies, only one nominee has been confirmed.
The crisis is also acute in the circuit court of appeals. Of the 179 circuit court judgeships, 27 are vacant, an extraordinary 15 percent vacancy rate. This is a disservice to the American people.
Compounding the vacancy crisis in the federal judiciary is the need for new federal judgeships. As Ralph Meecham noted in a letter to congressional leadership, the nation's courts are in the midst of a "growing flood of litigation." Filings in the courts of appeals have increased 22 percent since 1992 and reached an all-time high last year. In the district courts, civil filings rose by 23 percent and criminal filings increased by 36 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The situation is so dire that even if all existing vacancies were filled tomorrow, America's judges would still be in desperate need of re-enforcement. Since becoming Attorney General, I have met with judges from Circuits throughout the country on a score of occasions to discuss the issues that affect the administration of justice in our federal courts.
From my discussions with judges all across the nation, I know that the need to ease the crisis in the federal judiciary is great and growing. So I join President Bush in calling on the Senate to rise above the bitterness of the past and to provide a fair hearing and a prompt vote on each and every nominee.
An overburdened, understaffed judicial system simply cannot maintain the level of work that is necessary to meet the demands of the American public. In order to sustain the quality and timeliness of American justice, I recognize that the judicial system needs additional resources – it demands the creation of new federal judgeships to ease the growing stress and strain in our judicial system. The caseloads of several of the individual circuit courts of appeals, such as the Sixth Circuit, warrant immediate congressional action to fill existing vacancies and to create additional judgeships. Congress must act quickly to fill judicial vacancies, create desperately needed judgeships, and restore the federal judiciary to its full strength.
The American people deserve a federal judiciary that is fully staffed and operating at peak efficiency. And in this time of national testing, with our country fully engaged in a war on terrorism, it is more important than ever that we are able to rely on our system of justice.
In the words of Chief Justice Rehnquist, quote, "During times such as these, the role of the courts becomes even more important in order to enforce the rule of law." The security that fosters liberty demands a bench filled with judges of integrity who will enforce fairly the rule of law.
In 1847, at a gathering of jurists in Charleston, South Carolina, Daniel Webster raised his glass in a toast. "To the law," Webster said. " It has honored us; may we honor it." As we continue to strive to provide equal access to prompt justice for all Americans, let us offer a similar tribute: To the citizens who look to us to protect and defend their rights and freedoms. They have honored us with their trust. May we honor them with justice.
Thank you very much.