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Ms. JACKSON LEE of Texas. Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of S. 1379, the ``The D.C. Courts and Public Defender Service Act of 2011,'' the purpose of which is to grant the District of Columbia (D.C.) Courts and Public Defender Service (PDS) greater administrative flexibility in several areas.
First, the bill authorizes the D.C. Superior Court and Court of Appeals to hold judicial conferences either annually or biennially, eliminating the current mandate that they always hold such conferences every year. Under S. 1379, magistrate judges are required to attend these judicial conferences.
Moreover, this bill authorizes the D.C. Courts to toll or delay judicial deadlines in certain emergency situations such as natural disasters, and allows the D.C. Courts to be reimbursed by the D.C. Government for certain office expenses.
Finally S. 1379 gives the D.C. Public Defender Service authority to purchase liability insurance for its attorneys and changes the term for Family Court judges from five years to three years.
Current law requires the D.C. Courts to hold a judicial conference annually ``for the purpose of advising as to the means of improving the administration of justice within the District of Columbia.''
Federal Courts, however, must hold a conference only every two years. The D.C. Courts have estimated that, in addition to the time spent by judicial personnel planning and attending the conference, they will spend approximately $50,000 on the 2012 judicial conference.
We know that local governments, like D.C., are under tremendous budget constraints, and given Congress' Constitutionally-mandated duty to oversee the District, we should be solicitous to District concerns when it comes to what we require of its government, particularly where costs are concerned.
The requirement that D.C. Courts hold annual judicial conferences was enacted before 1975, long before the internet was created in addition to numerous other advances in communication.
D.C. Courts have determined that the funds, resources, and time required to prepare for and conduct such conferences would be more effectively used if the judicial conference were conducted biennially rather than annually.
With the significant improvement in the dissemination and exchange of information the D.C. Courts' judicial conference is no longer the primary means of obtaining advice pertaining to the administration of justice within D.C.
Specifically, the Courts have determined that electronic and other forms of communication, including the Courts' websites, enable them to regularly communicate with the various participants in the court system.
We should remove the burdensome requirement that D.C. Courts hold annual judicial conferences and, instead, require biannual conferences. Furthermore, despite their important role in the judicial system of the District, magistrate judges currently are not required to attend the D.C. Courts' judicial conference.
D.C. Court magistrate judges hear a variety of cases, including misdemeanor and traffic cases, criminal arraignments, small claims, child support orders, and protection orders.
The D.C. Courts have requested that magistrate judges be required to attend judicial conferences. Because of their importance to the judicial system, I believe that this request should be granted.
The D.C. Courts have also expressed concern with their inability to toll or delay judicial deadlines in the event of an emergency or terrorist attack.
For example, in recent years, snowstorms as well as Tropical Storm Sandy have resulted in devastation of the D.C. Metropolitan area, resulting in federal government closings.
To address this concern, S. 1379 authorizes the Chief Judges of the D.C. Court of Appeals and the D.C. Superior Court to toll or delay judicial proceedings in the event of natural disasters or emergency situations.
Emergency authority under this bill should be used sparingly, and only in extraordinary circumstances. Therefore, S. 1379 requires that if the emergency authority is used for 14 days or more, the Joint Judicial Committee must approve each extension and the courts must give Congress a written justification no later than 180 days after the expiration of the last extension granted.
Currently, there is no statutory authority to allow D.C. Courts, absent explicit authority from Congress, to enter into reimbursable agreements with anyone, including the D.C. government.
This is because the D.C. Home Rule Act prevents the obligation of funds without approval by an Act of Congress. To address this concern, S. 1379 modifies the D.C. Code to allow the D.C. Courts to enter into reimbursable agreements for certain office expenses.
Finally, unlike Federal public defender service organizations, D.C. Public Defender Service does not have explicit authority to purchase liability insurance for its attorneys; consequentially, its attorneys are unable to protect themselves from potential lawsuits arising during the course of their official duties.
Individuals who provide professional advice and services, such as attorneys, typically carry liability insurance in order to offset the risks arising as a result of the advice or services they render.
To address this, S. 1379 provides the D.C. Public Defender Service explicit statutory authority to purchase professional liability insurance, allowing its staff to be protected from the financial risk of potential lawsuits by clients and others.
The accommodations sought by the D.C. Courts and Public Defender Service Act are reasonable and will ameliorate several deficiencies under current law. Therefore, I urge my colleagues to support S. 1379.
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