Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist used his annual year-end report to point up changes in the federal judiciary over the past 100 years and to again beseech Congress to raise the low rates paid court-appointed lawyers who represent poor people charged with federal crimes.
"Inadequate compensation for . . . attorneys is seriously hampering the ability of courts to recruit and retain qualified [federal defenders] to provide effective representation," Rehnquist said. He noted that Congress in 1986 approved a $75 hourly rate but has never fully funded that amount.
The traditional New Year's Day report offers the chief justice a forum to size up the judiciary and send a public message to Congress about overriding concerns. This year it also provided a vehicle for Rehnquist's whimsical personality. The man who was last seen on nationwide television decked in gold stripes presiding over President Clinton's impeachment trial began by saying that, despite all the hoopla, the century isn't over.
"I hasten to point out, [it] has another year to run. Just ask the makers of 2001: A Space Odyssey," Rehnquist wrote.
As he surveyed changes in the judiciary, Rehnquist referred to the long-abandoned practice of judges journeying from courthouse to courthouse to hear cases. "A century that began with some federal judges still riding the circuits concludes with judges communicating by video conferencing, using a federal judicial television network, and in some instances reviewing briefs filed electronically."
He noted that 100 years ago, there were 108 federal judges; today, there are 852. Shifting to more contemporary comparisons, Rehnquist noted that criminal case filings continue to climb. He said the 1999 increase, as well as the previous year's, stemmed primarily from drug and immigration prosecutions along the Southwest border.
His most urgent comments came in regard to fees for lawyers who accept appointments under the Criminal Justice Act, intended to guarantee that federal defendants who cannot afford lawyers are adequately represented--a requirement that stems from the court's 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright that the Constitution requires a lawyer for all persons charged with serious crimes.
Despite the $75 hourly rate that has been permitted by the law since 1986, Rehnquist said, most CJA attorneys have for years been paid only $65 for courtroom hours and $45 for out-of-court time. He noted that Congress recently approved a $5 raise: $70 per hour for courtroom work, $50 out of court.
"While providing some relief, compensation rates still do not meet many attorneys' non-reimbursable overhead costs," he said. "Adequate pay for appointed counsel is important to ensure that a defendant's constitutional right to counsel is fulfilled." The judiciary's budget request last year noted that CJA lawyers receive the lowest fees of any private counsel on special hire by the federal government.
Joining a chorus of concern voiced by Attorney General Janet Reno, defense lawyers, bar leaders and other judges, Rehnquist said, "Because of the urgency of this need, once again, I respectfully ask Congress to make adequate compensation for panel attorneys a high priority."
As he has done in the past, Rehnquist also urged lawmakers to stop creating new federal crimes when offenses are the domain of the states, and pressed for increased pay for judges. He commended Congress for appointing a full slate of members to the U.S. Sentencing Commission and filling some judicial vacancies. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) took note of that in his own recently released report on the federal bench, saying the Senate confirmed 34 judges in 1999. He asserted that the vacancy rate--always the subject of political friction between the Senate and White House--was at the lowest level since 1990.
The chief justice, who has been on the court since 1972 and in the center chair since 1986, ended on a philosophical, optimistic note.
"Our judicial experiences in 1999 and throughout the 20th century have confirmed the wisdom of the fundamental structure provided for our government by our founders. . . . Although we can no more foresee the technological advances that will come in the 21st century than our predecessors did 100 years ago, we enter the new century with some confidence that the judiciary can adapt to and utilize those developments based upon our past experiences."
CAPTION: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist arrives at the Senate chamber last January to preside at the impeachment trial of President Clinton. At year's end, he struck a philosophical note about the state of America's judiciary.