Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is proposing legislation that would for the first time establish a formal procedure, besides impeachment, for disciplining federal judges.
In a major legislative package expected to be introduced today, Kennedy also proposes setting up a new appellate court with nationwide jurisdiction to handle tax matters, which are now appealed to the 11 U.S. circuit courts of appeal.
The Kennedy package, coupled with a series of "judicial reform" bills put forward earlier this month by President Carter, guarantees that judicial restructuring will be a central theme of this session of Congress. He Kennedy bill is to be cosponsored by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee that will consider the issue, and was developed with Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts.
The disciplinary provision is aimed primarily at judges who for whatever reason -- senility, illness or misbehavior -- are thought to have violated judicial standards but not so seriously that they need to be impeached.
The Kennedy-DeConcini proposals would establish a variety of sanctions -- reprimand, censure, a request for voluntary retirement or temporary elimination of a judge's caseload -- to deal with such situations.
The judicial circuit councils, which now handle these matters quietly and informally, would be given a standardized procedure to follow. People who want to file complaints would also have a formal forum to be heard.
"It's clear to us," said Kastenmeier, "that Congress is not really able to from itself into a forum to impeach and try judges. We have too many other duties. So except in rare instances, we have to find other methods."
A bill sponsored by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), which passed the Senate last year, would set up a procedure for removing judges short of impeachment. That measure is expected to come up again in this session of Congress.
A provision in the Kennedy bill would also encourage older judges to retire sooner. Currently, a judge must be 70 and have served 10 years to retire with full benefits and senior judge status. The bill would allow the privilege to a judge whose years in office, added to his age, equal 80 -- the so called Rule of 80. This would enable a 60-year-old judge with 20 years of service to retire.
The Kennedy proposal to create a new court for tax appeals stems from years of complaints of unevenness and uncertainty in tax matters stemming from the lack of a single nationwide forum.
The Kennedy bill would create a new appeals court, consisting of 12 sitting circuit court judges from around the country, appointed by the chief justice. It would exclusively hear appeals from the district courts and the U.S. Tax Court.
It avoids one of the central objections to similar past proposals -- the use of tax specialists as judges -- by having regular federal judges serve three-year terms on the new tax court of appeals.