Split of 9th Circuit gains support
WASHINGTON » The Justice Department is backing efforts by congressional Republicans to split up the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation's largest federal appeals court.
"The department believes that dividing the 9th Circuit would improve the administration of justice," Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella wrote in a letter released yesterday by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., an advocate of breaking up the San Francisco-based circuit.
"The sheer size of the 9th Circuit has led to serious administrative difficulties that have adversely affected its ability to render justice efficiently," Moschella wrote.
The letter was addressed to House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who is pushing legislation to break up the circuit that covers nine Western states, arguing it's too big to be effective.
Opponents allege political motives by Republicans annoyed by the court's rulings, including a 2002 opinion that declared the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional when recited in public schools. The Bush administration had maintained the pledge is not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
The House GOP is seeking to fast-track the circuit-split legislation by making it part of a pending deficit-cutting bill. That move is meeting opposition in the Senate, which didn't include the circuit split in its version of the budget bill.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., strongly opposes breaking up the circuit, and has enlisted Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to assert his jurisdiction over the issue and argue against including it in the budget-cutting bill. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on the issue last month but the full committee has not yet considered it.
The 9th Circuit's territory encompasses about 54 million people, and the circuit has 28 judgeships. The circuit with the next largest number of judges is the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit, with 17.