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