Conference of Chief Justices

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Page 78

Improving the state judicial system is the mission of the Conference of Chief Justices. Founded in 1949 as an association of chief justices of state supreme courts, the conference tackles organizational, administrative, and procedural issues at its biannual meetings and through standing and special committees. It is governed by a board of directors. Long regarded as an austere group with narrow concerns, the conference emerged in a broader role in the 1990s. Pressing concerns about a logjam of cases in state courts led it to open a new partnership with federal courts, resulting in the first-ever meeting between the highest judicial officers of both court systems in 1990. More dramatically, the conference broke its long-standing silence on politics: it entered a heated battle with the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT over ethics rules, made outspoken attacks on federal HEALTH CARE and crime legislation, and began earnestly LOBBYING Congress. This bolder identity caused ripples in the legal community as the conference announced its willingness to be a political player with the help of its research and lobbying arm, the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).

Traditionally, the Conference of Chief Justices tended to looked inward. Its membership includes, besides state supreme court justices, the highest judicial officers of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories, and each jurisdiction has long faced similar concerns. State court systems are simple only in appearance: every system of trial, appellate, and supreme courts requires vast organizational resources. The conference was founded to share ideas, compare methods, and brainstorm new solutions to managing these behemoths. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, meetings addressed matters ranging from the expanding role of the court administrator to the problems of caseload management and rules and methods of procedure. Not all these concerns were limited to the courts. The conference reacted in dismay to the ruling in the 1984 case of Pulliam v. Allen, 466 U.S. 522, 104 S. Ct. 1970, 80 L. Ed. 2d 565 (1984), which overturned the historic doctrine of JUDICIAL IMMUNITY and permitted attorneys to collect awards against state judges, and it began an ongoing lobbying effort aimed at having Congress restore judicial immunity.

The conference's horizons started to broaden in the 1980s, as changes in federal policy began overloading state courts. The states have...

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