Judiciary Seeks New Judgeships, Reaffirms Need for Enhanced Security

The Judicial Conference of the United States, the Judiciary’s policy-making body, today addressed two of its most pressing issues – a proposal to add 79 new judgeships (pdf) for courts across the country and initiatives to improve both personal and courthouse security.

“These security initiatives are necessary to keep judges, their families and staffs, and the public visiting our courthouses safe,” said Judge David McKeague. “We need to act on the lessons we learned from events of the past year,” said McKeague, who is chair of the Judicial Conference’s Judicial Security Committee, in remarks at today’s biannual session of the Conference.

Last fall, the Judicial Conference approved a package of security enhancements, including a request for legislation to protect judges’ personally identifiable information on the internet. The Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, named after the murdered son of Judge Esther Salas, was introduced last fall in both houses of Congress.

Daniel was shot and killed in the doorway of the family’s New Jersey home in July by a litigant who found the judge’s home address on the internet and posed as a courier. The judge’s husband was seriously wounded and continues to heal. The legislation had bipartisan support but was not acted on before Congress adjourned in December. The cosponsors have indicated they will reintroduce it soon.

The Judicial Conference also supported increased funding for the U.S. Marshals Service. In the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill, Congress provided funds for the Marshals Service to replace outdated security systems at judges’ homes and also increased funding for the Marshals Service Open Source Intelligence Unit, which monitors threats on the internet and dark web.

In addition to the tragic attack at Judge Salas’ home, civil unrest in the past year resulted in damage to over 53 courthouses across the country, a sustained attack on the courthouse in Portland, Oregon, and the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol. As a result, the Judiciary will be submitting a supplemental funding request to Congress that will address existing vulnerabilities at courthouses.

“These incidents demonstrated the increasing threat to our courthouses and their occupants,” McKeague said. “Our security needs require urgent attention to ensure that these types of things don’t happen again.”

With regard to judgeships, the recommendations approved today by the Judicial Conference would ask Congress to create two new court of appeals judgeships and 77 new district judgeships. The Conference also requested that nine temporary district judgeships be converted to permanent status.

Congress last enacted a comprehensive bill to increase the number of appellate and district judgeships in 1990. A total of 34 district court judgeships were created between 1999 and 2003 as part of other legislation, mostly appropriations bills. No new court of appeals judgeships have been created in more than 30 years.

Since the last omnibus judgeship bill was enacted, the caseload in the district courts had risen 47 percent (civil cases were up 41 percent and criminal filings rose 72 percent) by the end of fiscal year 2019, before the COVID­-19 pandemic began to impact filings. As of fiscal year 2020, filings in the courts of appeals had risen 12 percent since 1990.

Even with the decline in district court filings due to the pandemic, in fiscal year 2020, weighted filings were above 500 per judgeship in 17 of the 26 courts in which the Conference is recommending additional judgeships or the conversion of existing temporary judgeships to permanent status. Weighted case filings are a measure that the Judiciary uses to account for the varying level of resources cases require.

Weighted case filings exceeded 600 per judgeship in 14 of these courts, 700 per judgeship in six courts, and 900 per judgeship in two courts.

The 26-member Judicial Conference (pdf) is the policy-making body for the federal court system. By statute, the Chief Justice of the United States serves as its presiding officer and its members are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.

The Conference convenes twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch. The Conference conducted its regularly scheduled biannual meeting today by teleconference due to travel limitations because of the pandemic.

More from: info@uscourts.gov

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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has established a process to determine basic allowance for housing (BAH) rates, which help cover the cost of suitable housing in the private sector for servicemembers. However, DOD has not always collected rental data on the minimum number of rental units needed to estimate the total housing cost for certain locations and housing types. GAO analysis found that 44 percent (788 of 1,806) of locations and housing types had fewer than the minimum sample-size target. Until DOD develops ways to increase its sample size, it will risk providing housing cost compensation that does not accurately represent the cost of suitable housing for servicemembers. DOD followed congressional requirements for calculating BAH reductions and payments to privatized housing projects. However, while the 2019 congressionally mandated payments lessened the financial effects of BAH reductions, as intended, they did not do so commensurate with the amount of the BAH reduction. GAO found that privatized housing projects received payments that were either over or under the amount of revenue lost from reductions made to BAH, in some cases by $1 million or more. (see figure) Number of Privatized Housing Projects and Amounts That Congressionally Mandated Payments Were Above or Below the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) Reduction Estimate (in 2019) These distortions occurred because the legal requirements for calculating the BAH reduction and the congressionally mandated payments differ. Specifically, the law requires that the BAH reduction be a set dollar amount, regardless of location, while payments to privatized housing projects are required to differ by location. This required method of calculating the BAH reduction amounts is consistent with how prior reductions were calculated. According to DOD, BAH rates were reduced so that servicemembers share a portion of housing costs, and that reduction amount was the same for servicemembers with the same pay grade and dependency status, regardless of location. Until Congress takes steps to ensure congressionally mandated payment calculations are consistent with how BAH reductions are calculated, some privatized housing projects will continue to receive more or less than was intended. DOD spent about $20 billion in fiscal year 2019 on BAH—often one of the largest components of military pay. BAH is designed to cover a portion of servicemembers' housing rental and utility costs in the private sector. Starting in 2015, DOD reduced BAH rates so that servicemembers share a portion of housing costs. The majority of servicemembers rely on the civilian housing market, while others rely on government housing or privatized housing projects. These projects rely on BAH as a key revenue source. In 2018-2020, Congress required DOD to make payments to these projects to help offset the BAH reduction. Senate Report 116-48 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's BAH process. This report evaluates, among other things, the extent to which (1) DOD established a process to determine BAH and (2) DOD's congressionally mandated payments to projects lessened the effects of BAH reductions. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed relevant guidance and other documents, analyzed key data, and interviewed cognizant DOD officials. GAO is making a matter for congressional consideration to revise statutory language to ensure payments to privatized housing projects are consistent with BAH reductions. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOD review its sampling methodology to increase sample size. DOD concurred with two recommendations. DOD also partially concurred with one recommendation, which GAO continues to believe is valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Elizabeth A. Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Electricity Grid Resilience: Climate Change Is Expected to Have Far-reaching Effects and DOE and FERC Should Take Actions
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Climate change is expected to have far-reaching effects on the electricity grid that could cost billions and could affect every aspect of the grid from generation, transmission, and distribution to demand for electricity, according to several reports GAO reviewed. The type and extent of these effects on the grid will vary by geographic location and other factors. For example, reports GAO reviewed stated that more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may adversely affect hydroelectricity generation in Alaska and the Northwest and Southwest regions of the United States. Further, transmission capacity may be reduced or distribution lines damaged during increasing wildfire activity in some regions due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions. Moreover, climate change effects on the grid could cost utilities and customers billions, including the costs of power outages and infrastructure damage. Examples of Climate Change Effects on the Electricity Grid Since 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have taken actions to enhance the resilience of the grid. For example, in 2015, DOE established a partnership with 18 utilities to plan for climate change. In 2018, FERC collected information from grid operators on grid resilience and their risks to hazards such as extreme weather. Nevertheless, opportunities exist for DOE and FERC to take additional actions to enhance grid resilience to climate change. For example, DOE identified climate change as a risk to energy infrastructure, including the grid, but it does not have an overall strategy to guide its efforts. GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework states that federal efforts can focus on risk reduction by creating resilience goals and linking those goals to an overarching strategy. Developing and implementing a department-wide strategy that defines goals and measures progress could help prioritize DOE's climate resilience efforts to ensure that resources are targeted effectively. Regarding FERC, it has not taken steps to identify or assess climate change risks to the grid and, therefore, is not well positioned to determine the actions needed to enhance resilience. Risk management involves identifying and assessing risks to understand the likelihood of impacts and their associated consequences. By doing so, FERC could then plan and implement appropriate actions to respond to the risks and achieve its objective of promoting resilience. Why GAO Did This Study According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, changes in the earth's climate are under way and expected to increase, posing risks to the electricity grid that may affect the nation's economic and national security. Annual costs of weather-related power outages total billions of dollars and may increase with climate change, although resilience investments could help address potential effects, according to the research program. Private companies own most of the electricity grid, but the federal government plays a significant role in promoting grid resilience—the ability to adapt to changing conditions; withstand potentially disruptive events; and, if disrupted, to rapidly recover. DOE, the lead agency for grid resilience efforts, conducts research and provides information and technical assistance to industry. FERC reviews mandatory grid reliability standards. GAO was asked to examine U.S. energy infrastructure resilience. This report describes: (1) potential climate change effects on the electricity grid; and (2) actions DOE and FERC have taken since 2014 to enhance electricity grid resilience to climate change effects, and additional actions these agencies could take. GAO reviewed reports and interviewed agency officials and 55 relevant stakeholders.
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  • DHS Employee Morale: Some Improvements Made, but Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen Employee Engagement
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and each of its major components face the same key drivers of employee engagement—as measured by the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (OPM FEVS)—as the rest of the federal government (see table). Higher scores on the OPM FEVS indicate that an agency has the conditions that lead to higher employee engagement, a component of morale. Key Drivers of Employee Engagement across the Federal Government, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and within Each DHS Component Agency DHS has implemented department-wide employee engagement initiatives, including efforts to support DHS employees and their families. Additionally, DHS's major operational components, such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration, among others, have developed annual action plans to improve employee engagement. However, DHS has not issued written guidance on action planning and components do not consistently include key elements in their plans, such as outcome-based performance measures. Establishing required action plan elements through written guidance and monitoring the components to ensure they use measures to assess the results of their actions to adjust, reprioritize, and identify new actions to improve employee engagement would better position DHS to make additional gains in this area. In addition, approval from the DHS Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO) and component leadership for these plans would help ensure department-wide commitment to improving employee engagement. DHS has faced challenges with low employee morale and engagement—an employee's sense of purpose and commitment—since it began operations in 2003. DHS has made some progress in this area, but data from the 2019 OPM FEVS show that DHS continues to rank lowest among similarly-sized federal agencies. GAO has reported that increasing employee engagement can lead to improved agency performance, and it is critical that DHS do so given the importance of its missions. GAO was asked to review DHS employee morale. This report addresses (1) drivers of employee engagement at DHS and (2) the extent that DHS has initiatives to improve employee engagement and ensures effective engagement action planning. To answer these objectives, GAO used regression analyses of 2019 OPM FEVS data to identify the key drivers of engagement at DHS. GAO also reviewed component employee engagement action plans and met with officials from DHS and component human capital offices as well as unions and employee groups. GAO is making three recommendations. DHS OCHCO should, in its anticipated written guidance, establish the elements required in employee engagement action plans and the approval process for these plans. OCHCO should also monitor components' action planning to ensure they review and assess the results of their actions to improve employee engagement. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Chris Currie at (404) 679-1875 or CurrieC@gao.gov.
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