The U.S. House of Representatives today approved legislation that would shorten the term of judges in the District of Columbia's Family Court and give the local court system more scheduling flexibility during natural disasters or other emergencies.
The D.C. Courts and Public Defender Service Act, which the U.S. Senate passed in July, will go to the White House, where President Barack Obama is expected to sign it into law. Unlike state courts, the city's local court system is funded and overseen by Congress.
Under the proposed legislation, terms for D.C. Superior Court judges serving in Family Court would change from five years to three years. In supporting shorter terms, court officials cited long-standing concerns that the five-year requirement made it tougher to recruit judges for the rotation and increased the risk of judicial burnout.
The bill would give court officials authority to delay proceedings and temporarily suspend deadlines during an emergency situation. "Super storm Sandy shows us what an impact disasters, both natural and man-made, can have on a community and is a prime example of why" the bill is needed, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said today in a statement.
The court system would also get new freedom to hold its judicial conference every two years instead of annually, a change promoted as a cost-saving measure. According to a Senate committee report, court officials said they could communicate much more information to judges and lawyers through the Web than in the past, making annual conferences unnecessary.
"If signed by the President, the bill will allow the DC Courts to operate more smoothly during emergency situations, manage our budget by seeking reimbursement for services and facilities we provide to DC executive branch agencies, tailor our judicial conferences to the needs of the DC legal community, and ensure that Family Court is able to recruit the most capable and committed judges to its bench," D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric Washington said in a statement. "In short, Congresswoman’s Norton’s bill will allow us to better serve the people of DC."
The other piece of the legislation would give the D.C. Public Defender Service explicit authority to buy professional liability insurance. PDS is federally funded but, unlike other federal agencies, its lawyers aren't insured through the federal government. There was never a law against the office buying the insurance, but the bill would clarify that they can.
A Public Defender Service representative could not immediately be reached for comment.