'Not Reasonably Debatable': The Problems with Single-Judge Decisions by the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
56 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2015 Last revised: 23 Jun 2016
Date Written: August 26, 2015
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) has statutory authority — unique among the federal appellate courts — to allow individual judges to decide appeals. As the CAVC completes the first quarter century of operations since its creation, this article examines the court’s use of this authority. Based upon two years of data developed and analyzed by the authors, this article concludes that outcome variance in single-judge decisions is a serious problem at the CAVC. Not only is there a substantial difference in the outcomes of appeals assigned to the different judges, but there are clear examples of decisions that violate the court’s precedent against deciding novel issues or debatable cases by a single judge. Based upon the more than 4,000 decisions reviewed, it is recommended that substantial changes must be made in how the court exercises single-judge authority. Alternatively, this authority could be abolished altogether so that the CAVC decides all appeals by panel, as is done by the other federal appellate courts. The near-term goal of reform should be to increase the percentage of the CAVC’s opinions that are published from the current average of under two percent to at least twelve percent (the average for federal courts of appeals). Increasing the number of precedential decisions will not only ensure fairness to all of the veterans appealing to the court, but will also improve the guidance provided to the Department of Veterans Affairs because it would resolve more legal issues and also demonstrate how the court believes the law should be applied to difficult or new fact patterns.
Keywords: veterans, veterans law, judges, appellate courts, decisionmaking, nonprecedential
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