Uncle Sam Modernizes His Justice: Inventing the Federal District Courts of the Twentieth Century for the District of Columbia and the Nation

Posted: 5 Mar 2002


The celebration of the 200th birthday of the courts of the District of Columbia offers an opportunity to focus on the diversification and proliferation of the federal institutions of judging. During the twentieth century, the federal courts and Congress worked together to create a host of statutory federal judges, including magistrate and bankruptcy judges who serve through appointments from Article III judges, as well as administrative law judges and hearing officers working within agencies. In addition to inventing this array of judicial officers, the federal judiciary also redefined the work of judging to include efforts to settle cases and to influence congressional deployment and allocation of jurisdiction.

The innovations have many sources. One is doctrinal. The authority of statutory judges stems from a rereading of Article III to license a great deal of federal adjudication without Article III's structural protections. As litigants challenged the devolution of judicial power, their claims became an occasion to explore the import of judicial independence. In general, the life-tenured judiciary permitted (and sometimes welcomed) congressional generation of many adjudicative forms, seen not to pose a threat to "Article III values."

The doctrine in turn was crafted in the face of pressures from an expanding federal docket that required some form of change. The particular programs chosen were based in part on perceptions of the lessening utility of adjudicatory methods, in part on a sense of varying levels of import of cases within the federal docket, and in part on incentives created by legal rules and practices. For example, magistrate judgeships are particularly useful for the Article III judiciary, which has the power to create slots without the need to obtain specific lines from Congress. As of 2000, the number of non-life-tenured judgeships was roughly equal to the number of life-tenured trial judgeships. Moreover, in some twenty federal districts, the number of magistrate judges equaled or exceeded that of district judges.

What are the effects of such innovations on the constitutional commitment to, and the prudential belief in, judicial independence? In addition to focusing on the import of contemporary doctrine, I examine the relatively new practices of the appointment and reappointment of judges by judges. After showing the degree to which the life-tenured judiciary is dependent on, and its fortunes are linked with, its non-life-tenured siblings, I argue that Article III judges ought to learn to relax their own status privileges and attempt, self-consciously, to blur distinctions among kinds of judges so as to broaden the embrace of Article III. "Article III values" are, in my view, at stake, and their preservation requires life-tenured judges to attempt to infuse these values into all aspects of federal judging.

Suggested Citation

Resnik, Judith, Uncle Sam Modernizes His Justice: Inventing the Federal District Courts of the Twentieth Century for the District of Columbia and the Nation. Forthcoming in Georgetown Law Journal Symposium in Honor of the DC Circuit's 200th Anniversary, 2002. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=301246

Judith Resnik (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1447 (Phone)
203-432-1719 (Fax)

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