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04-19-04, 10:35 AM
Judges on Little-Known Court Paid for Life

Apr 18, 8:32 PM (ET)


WASHINGTON (AP) - Judges on a little-known federal court that decides claims against the government are appointed for 15 years, but collect their full six-figure salaries for a lifetime for a workload that averaged fewer than two trials each in one recent year.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims jurists turn their fixed terms into lifetime jobs by remaining as senior judges. Currently, the federal claims court has 16 active judges and 13 in senior status.

A few of the senior judges handle a full workload. Some handle at least 25 percent of their former caseload. Others have an empty docket. All are paid $158,100 a year, the same as full-time federal judges.

The congressionally approved arrangement for the claims judges - described as a "charmed existence" by one legal expert - is gaining scrutiny. Two Democratic senators have prepared a bill to abolish the court, with its budget of $14.4 million.

"It's a waste of money," Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. Added Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.: "The taxpayers are spending top dollar for full-time judges that don't even perform part-time work."

A Court of Federal Claims judge had an average workload of 45 cases from 1997 through 2001 and conducted fewer than two trials each in 2002, according to records compiled by the senators. In contrast, District Court judges averaged 478 cases and completed an average 19 trials a year, according to the latest statistics.

Court of Federal Claims Chief Judge Edward Damich said in an interview that the caseload numbers are meaningless because his judges must resolve "complex, high stakes litigation" that usually is settled without a trial.

The claims court has special expertise in disputes between contractors and the government, cases brought by taxpayers seeking refunds and plaintiffs complaining the government illegally seized their property. It has sole jurisdiction in lawsuits filed by unsuccessful bidders seeking government contracts.

Damich said Congress reorganized the court more than 20 years ago with the intention of allowing its judges to serve for life despite their 15-year terms.

"It was because of the fear that if we were to lose salary and benefits completely, that might influence judges in their decisions," he said. "They might be influenced in a pro-government way to get reappointed."

Damich said that for reasons he could not explain, presidents have rarely reappointed the judges to second 15-year terms.

Citing complex issues over the years, Damich said the court handled 65 cases brought by utilities seeking damages because spent nuclear fuel was not removed from their property.

An additional 300 cases were brought by financial institutions and their shareholders, who blamed a government accounting change for triggering massive savings and loan failures in the 1980s.

The court's docket as of April 8 had 6,264 cases, Damich said. But he acknowledged that all but 1,789 were claims to collect money from a government trust fund, established for victims - mostly children - harmed by vaccines.

The vaccine cases are handled by special experts called masters; the judges only get involved when someone appeals a ruling. They should not be counted in the court's caseload, Dorgan and Wyden said, and their caseload statistics leave them out.

The senators said they were especially outraged by the full-salaried senior judges.

"They go from doing next to nothing to doing nothing," Dorgan said.

The chief judge won support from David Churchill, a Washington lawyer who is president of the Court of Federal Claims Bar Association.

"The Justice Department is a litigant in each of these cases," he said, adding "it would be greatly preferable" to give the claims judges lifetime appointments to ensure their independence. He contended it would be highly disruptive to transfer to judges on another court complex cases that last for years.

When the claims judges finish their term and take senior status, the chief judge must decide whether to recall them to service and have them work for their salaries.

If they are recalled, the judges are required to handle 25 percent of an active judge's caseload to qualify for any pay increases.

Damich, who said he negotiates with each senior judge, said four of the 13 do no work while one senior judge handles only court administrative duties. The other senior judges have varying caseloads.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims http://www.uscfc.uscourts.gov/