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Senate Judiciary OKs Bills on Court Security, Loan Forgiveness

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved court security legislation today, while also voting to eliminate the 12th seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to create an additional seat on the Ninth Circuit appeals court and to help prosecutors and other public defenders pay off their law school debts.

The Court Security Improvement Act of 2007, S. 378, was passed as amended by voice vote. The legislation would amend Title 18 of the U.S. Code, increasing security for judges, prosecutors and other court participants. It also expands witness protection programs and increases penalties for tampering with witnesses.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) offered an amendment that would eliminate the 12th seat of the D.C. Circuit court — a seat that has been vacant for the last 10 years — and instead add one to the Ninth Circuit. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) supported Kyl’s amendment and asked to be added as a co-sponsor. She pointed out that the Ninth Circuit has five times more filings per judge than the D.C. Circuit does. She went on to say that it’s a good idea to “take a judgeship from where it is needed the least and add it to where it is needed the most.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also supported this amendment. In the past, both he and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have blocked former President Bill Clinton and President Bush from filling the 12th seat because the court’s caseload was too low.

The panel’s chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), made it clear he believes it would be a mistake to pass the amendment. However, he ultimately accepted it, saying that not doing so “could put in jeopardy the court security bill.”

In the meantime, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) offered an amendment that would have shifted a temporary judgeship in his state to permanent status. He argued that Kansas has the fourth-highest caseload per judge, and that three of the state’s judges are aged 99, 85 and 80 years old. “I don’t think we can count on these guys for a lot longer,” he said.

Leahy, however, pushed Brownback to withdraw this amendment, saying that he would like to pass a comprehensive bill on judges in the future. He also expressed his concern that the bill might fail were this amendment to be attached. The amendment was withdrawn.

The John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act of 2007 (S. 442) passed as amended by a voice vote, despite concerns raised by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The bill would enable lawyers who agreed to serve for between three and six years as prosecutors or defense attorneys to receive $10,000 worth of loan forgiveness annually.

Coburn opposed the bill partly due to the cost to taxpayers, and also argued that the issue is a state matter and is thus out of the committee’s jurisdiction. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) echoed Coburn’s sentiments, saying he wished “the bill dealt with just our domain and our jurisdiction which is the federal.”

The sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), argued that the money to fund the bill would be money that is in the Justice budget and that it will not show up in supplemental spending legislation.

The bill was adopted with several amendments, the most contentious of which was proposed by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and gives priority to those who have the least ability to repay their loans.

Other amendments to the bill clarify in the text that criminal cases also include juvenile delinquency cases and require GAO to investigate the requirements of law school.

In addition to these two bills, four resolutions were passed en bloc.

Three bills were held over: The Federal Agency Data Mining Reporting Act of 2007 (S. 236), The Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act of 2007 (S. 261) and the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2007 (S. 376).

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