Western conservatives in the U.S. Senate tried to add language to a spending bill last fall to neutralize an old nemesis - the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the senators, facing heavy opposition in the House of Representatives, had to compromise: a commission will review the appeals court system and the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court, in particular.
The 9th Circuit is the largest, and
critics say the most pro-environment, liberal and unwieldy, of the
nation's 11 federal appeals courts. It settles appeals from U.S.
District Courts in nine Western states.
court's decisions have especially irritated three Western
Republican senators - Montana's Conrad Burns, Alaska's Ted Stevens
and Washington's Slade Gorton.
dissatisfaction with the court dates back to the 1970s, when he was
Washington's attorney general. In a series of fruitless appeals to
the 9th Circuit, he challenged a U.S. District Court decision
upholding the claim of local tribes to 50 percent of the state's
salmon catch. Since Gorton became a U.S. senator in 1981, he has
campaigned to split the 9th Circuit, though he and his colleagues
on this issue are careful to make the case on technicalities rather
The three senators say the 9th
Circuit Court's size makes it slow to settle cases. In their
amendment, they proposed a new 12th Circuit Court to hear cases in
seven Western states, isolating California in the 9th Circuit,
along with Nevada, Guam and the Northern Mariana
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has
called the proposal "political gerrymandering," designed to reduce
the regional influence of California and dilute the court's
perceived liberal influence.
argument may be difficult for the senators to prove. The 9th
Circuit Court's chief judge, Proctor Hug Jr., of Reno, Nev., blames
the heavy caseload on the Senate, which, in a tiff with the Clinton
administration, has left 10 of the court's 28 judgeships unfilled
by refusing to approve President Clinton's
Critics also question the
practicality and cost of splitting the court. Kevin Kirchner, vice
president of the San Francisco-based Earthjustice Legal Defense
Fund, notes the plan calls for a 12th Circuit Court that would sit
in Phoenix and Seattle and cost $60 million to set up. He calls it
"a tremendous expense to the taxpayer."
commission, appointed last month by Chief Justice William
Rehnquist, includes retired Justice Byron R. White, three sitting
federal judges and a former president of the American Bar
Association. The group will make its recommendations to the
president and Congress by the end of the year.