The U.S. Senate passed a bill yesterday dealing with a hodgepodge of issues within the District of Columbia's local courts system, from the length of Family Court rotations in D.C. Superior Court to how often the courts hold a judicial conference. The bill would also give the D.C. Public Defender Service authority for the first time to buy professional liability insurance.
The bill (PDF) would shorten Family Court terms from five years to three years. When Congress created the division in 2001, there were concerns that a five-year commitment would deter judges from volunteering and that judges would burn out because of the emotional issues involved in many of their cases. A Senate committee report (PDF) on the proposed legislation noted that those fears "appear to have been justified," citing a 2010 letter from Chief Judge Lee Satterfield to the House of Representatives.
The D.C. Courts and Public Defender Service Act of 2011 was unanimously approved yesterday by a voice vote. It was introduced last June by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who chairs a subcommittee of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees the District of Columbia's local affairs.
The bill would give the D.C. courts system leeway to hold its judicial conference every two years instead of every year. According to the committee report, court officials thought that annual meetings were no longer needed to communicate information to the bench and the D.C. Bar, especially since a lot of information is now available online. They also said that the money spent on conferences could be better spent elsewhere. This year's conference cost about $50,000, according to the report, on top of the time spent planning it.
Another provision would give the court system authority to delay or toll proceedings and deadlines in court cases in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. The Senate committee report cited the major snowstorms in December 2009 and February 2010 as examples of why the change was needed, noting that those storms "crippled the DC Metropolitan area."
The bill's other major provision would give the D.C. Public Defender Service explicit authority to buy professional liability insurance. The office has bought insurance in the past, since there's no statute against it, but this bill would clarify that it is allowed.
Unlike other agencies, which are insured through the federal government, the Public Defender Service is not, even though it's federally funded. Since the defenders represent private clients, they aren't immune against litigation in the same way other government employees are in carrying out their official duties.
A spokeswoman for the courts, Leah Gurowitz, declined to comment. A representative with the Public Defender Services could not immediately be reached. In a statement, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) praised the Senate's passage of the bill.
"The D.C. Courts and Public Defender Service Act is as non-controversial as it is vital to the law enforcement community of the District," she said. "The bill provides D.C. courts with the flexibility and cost savings other federal courts already have, eases the process of recruiting Family Court Division judges, and shields public defender lawyers from personal liability."