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Court of Extravagance

The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 26, 2003; Page A16

STEVEN L. SCHOONER may not get invited to another birthday party any time soon. At a conference last October commemorating the 20th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, the George Washington University law professor offered a modest thesis about the court, which hears monetary claims against the federal government. It is, he argued, an unnecessary waste of judicial resources that should be abolished. He makes a persuasive argument.

The claims court is one of the "specialty courts" to which Congress assigns certain categories of cases. But, Mr. Schooner argues, its jurisdiction is such a hodgepodge that it develops no specialty at all. The court hears contracting disputes involving the government, claims arising under the Fifth Amendment's "takings" clause -- which forbids government seizure of private property without compensation -- patent cases, claims involving Indian property, cases arising from the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and compensation claims for vaccine injuries. Not only are these subjects disparate, but they also are almost all handled by other courts or administrative tribunals as well. So the court's caseload, Mr. Schooner argues, is redundant as well as incoherent.

Claims court judges serve only 15-year terms. But after 15 years they can become "senior judges" -- and continue to receive full salaries even if they do very little work. So the court is now loaded with 12 senior judges in addition to its 12 regular judges -- plus four additional nominees that President Bush has pending before the Senate. Yet this collection of jurists processes cases with remarkable inefficiency, Mr. Schooner's data suggest; a claims court judge hears one case for every eight that an average federal district judge considers. While differences in the caseloads make any comparison difficult, Mr. Schooner argues that abolishing the court would have no discernible effect on other courts' caseloads. The claims court seems like an extravagant means of handling an almost random collection of cases. Inertia is a bad reason to keep such an entity around.



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