Sen. Murkowski bill would divvy up 9th Circuit

Court rulings have outraged conservatives, who blame California liberals for its findings

Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A bill introduced in Congress by Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Tuesday would divide a federal appeals court that has ruled on many controversial Alaska cases, including a recent rejection of timber demand projections in the Tongass Land Management Plan.

Sen. Murkowski, R-Alaska, said this week in Anchorage that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals needs to be divided in two because it is too big and unwieldy.

The court itself disagrees.

"Our court is overwhelmingly opposed to any split, with only three of our 24 active judges in favor of a restructuring," said 9th Circuit Chief Judge Mary Schroeder in a press announcement several weeks ago.

The 9th Circuit - based in San Francisco but spanning nine Western states - has been a target for reform by conservatives outraged by some of its rulings.

Conservative groups pilloried the court over its rulings to block logging in the Pacific Northwest's northern spotted owl habitat and determine the pledge of allegiance unconstitutional.

Conservatives have often blamed liberal-leaning California for the court's rulings, and a number of unsuccessful congressional bids in recent years have sought to divide California from the other Western states in the 9th Circuit.

Though Murkowski's bill, co-sponsored with Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., does propose splitting California away from the other Western states, Murkowski spokesman Elliott Bundy said Tuesday that the senator isn't taking a position on the court's alleged political bias.

On the other hand, some recent 9th Circuit rulings have struck close to Murkowski's allies in Alaska's resource industries.

A 9th Circuit panel recently ruled that the U.S. Forest Service improperly overestimated the demand for Tongass timber. The ruling may require some revision to the Tongass Land Management Plan.

The case, brought by a number of environmental groups including Juneau's Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, didn't include any California judges, noted Buck Lindekugel, a staff attorney for the group in Juneau.

Senate Bill 1845 would split the court in two pieces, retaining California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands as the 9th Circuit and creating a new 12th Circuit comprising Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Nevada and Arizona.

"The 58 million residents of the 9th Circuit are suffering from the size and ineffectiveness of the circuit. The current make-up of the 9th Circuit leaves its judges unable to effectively review opinions, take up cases in an appropriate length of time, and makes the management of the court burdensome," Murkowski said in a press statement Tuesday.

The appeals court handles more cases than any other circuit.

But Robert Boochever, a 9th Circuit judge who previously worked as a federal attorney in Juneau and served as a chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, has testified during past split-up efforts that adding more judges to the circuit is preferable to creating smaller circuit courts.

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