Report from Governmental Affairs

The ABA is committed to judicial independence and championing the courts

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A judge in court

Photo illustration by Sara Wadford/Shutterstock

Maintaining the independence of the federal judiciary has long been a core mission of the ABA. Through advocacy, education and collaboration, the ABA strives to preserve and protect the independence of the judicial branch of the federal government and ensure federal courts receive adequate resources—including for the safety of federal judges.

In the current environment of political turmoil, the most serious threats to judicial independence have included escalating violence, threatening rhetoric directed at judges who render unpopular decisions, and a loss of public confidence in the courts. The ABA has taken action.

This includes advocacy for the passage of the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, which was signed into law in December 2022 by President Joe Biden. The bill is named after U.S. District Judge Esther Salas’ son, who was tragically killed by a disgruntled attorney who attacked her family at their home. It restricts online access to federal judges’ personal information and authorizes more resources for federal marshals to assess and track threats against judges.

Bolstering public confidence

The striking loss of public confidence in the courts prompted former ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross to create the Cornerstones of Democracy civics education initiative in 2022. It encourages the legal profession to lead the way in promoting civics, civility and collaboration to restore confidence in democratic institutions and the judicial system and protect the rule of law. The ABA Task Force on Law, Society and the Judiciary also was established in 2022. In 2023, it released a report identifying and recommending additional steps to restore public confidence in the judicial branch.

To further bolster confidence in the courts, the ABA has advocated for robust codes of conduct for the judicial branch, including the U.S. Supreme Court. At the ABA’s 2023 Midyear Meeting, the House of Delegates approved a resolution urging the Supreme Court to adopt a binding code of judicial ethics comparable to the code of conduct for other U.S. judges adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States.

Later that year, when the court released a formal “Code of Conduct” for the Supreme Court justices, ABA President Mary Smith called it a “positive first step toward ethics transparency by the nation’s highest court.”

Funding the courts

For many years, the ABA has taken an active role in ensuring the judicial branch has the resources necessary to carry out its critical constitutional and statutory responsibilities. Working in close coordination with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and the Judicial Conference, the ABA advocated successfully during the 1990s and early 2000s to increase judicial salaries and amend pay-setting mechanisms that prevented judges from receiving adequate pay and cost-of-living adjustments. In addition to advocating vigorously before Congress, the Governmental Affairs Office co-authored a widely praised 2003 paper on judicial pay, and the ABA submitted an amicus brief supporting judicial pay litigation in Beer v. United States.

In 2013, the ABA mobilized when across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 sliced $350 million out of the federal judicial branch. The funding was restored the next year. In 2020, the ABA supported the federal judiciary’s $25 million emergency funding request to deal with the challenges to the courts posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Filling the bench

For at least two decades, the ABA also has advocated in Congress to ensure judicial vacancies are filled promptly and that enough judges are authorized. In 2010 and 2011, when vacancies for Article III judges were as high as 11%, ABA presidents wrote letters to congressional leadership and President Barack Obama urging immediate action. GAO also mobilized ABA members to urge Congress to promptly vote on pending nominees. Since then, federal judicial vacancies have plunged, helping to ensure the judiciary can more effectively uphold justice and the rule of law.

The ABA’s commitment to the federal courts is unwavering, and we will continue to champion the fundamental principles that underpin the judiciary as a co-equal branch of government and enable our federal judges to administer impartial and timely justice.

This story was originally published in the June-July 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Championing the Courts: The ABA is committed to judicial independence.”

This report is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the U.S. government.

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