The ABA Judicial Division Turns 100: The Vanderbilt Reforms

Vol. 53 No. 1

Peter M. Koelling is the director and chief counsel of the ABA Judicial Division. Koelling was a law clerk for the Texas Supreme Court, was in private practice and has worked in court administration in Texas, Washington, and Colorado. He also holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University.

Dean Roscoe Pound’s speech to the ABA and Herbert Harley’s letter on the Administration of Justice started the bench, the profession, and the public thinking about how the system could be improved. This resulted in the creation of the Judicial Section. In the decades following, there was discussion and research about judicial reform, but, frankly, very little change had come about. Against this resistance there were still a number of people who pursued the ideas of reform. One who took up pursuit of these ideas was Arthur T. Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was chair of the New Jersey Judicial Council from 1930 to 1947. He thought that Pound’s and Harley’s ideas had merit and that it was vital to improve the structure and administration of the courts and the rules of procedure and evidence. Vanderbilt observed that the focus of the profession had been on substantive law, not procedure. Although states would share principles of substantive law, procedural rules and practices, no matter how effective or innovative, were not being shared and applied by other states. With the New Deal, the pace of change to the structure and role of government in the 1930s was staggering at both the federal and state levels, but reform within court systems was glacial.

One of the best aspects of the ABA is that it allows the profession to share ideas and to speak with a unified voice to set policy and encourage reform. When Vanderbilt became president of the ABA, he used that voice to increase the pace of change in the justice system. He urged that the Judicial Section change its name to the Judicial Administration Division. The reason behind this change was “to give point and emphasis to the real purpose of the section.” Judicial administration reform was to be the focus of the Division and it was not just the responsibility of the judiciary, but of the entire bar.

Under President Vanderbilt’s leadership, the new Judicial Administration Division created seven committees with extensive representation from the states. Each of the committees focused on a different area of judicial reform: improving pretrial procedure, improving methods of jury selection, improving trial practice, improving the law of evidence, simplifying appellate procedure, increasing control of state administrative agencies, and improving judicial organization and administration. President Vanderbilt was mindful that the purpose of courts was to benefit the citizens, not necessarily the bench and bar. The complexity of the law and procedure, legal technicalities, and delay were frustrating people and businesses when they needed to use the courts. Vanderbilt saw the importance of procedural justice; people would be willing to accept an adverse outcome so long as they felt they had their day in court at a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. However, the promise of due process was not always being provided.

The committees of the Judicial Administration Division completed their work swiftly and published all seven reports in 1938. The reports were not intended to lay out ideal standards for courts to follow, but rather set out the minimum requirements to address the need for courts to be effective in those areas. The reports were based on practicality and strove to be useful to those who were attempting to reform the system. These ideas and reports were embraced by the ABA. Sixty-six resolutions offered by the Judicial Administration Division were adopted by the ABA House of Delegates. These ideas, along with the concept that courts and systems could learn from each other, began the process of true reform. In fact, the following year, 1939, Congress created the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. Vanderbilt himself was active in the drafting of this legislation. This was an important step in improving the administration of justice and in establishing the independence of the courts. Prior to the creation of the Office, administrative matters were handled by the Justice Department and not by the courts themselves. Over the next couple of decades, state court systems began to replicate the model created at the federal level.

As these reforms began to take hold, states began to reform their procedures and rules of evidence. They established independent administrative offices and began the professionalization of judicial administration. Judges were able to take greater responsibility for the rules of procedure and the administration and operation of their courts. It was the herculean efforts of the Judicial Division and the leadership of Arthur Vanderbilt that set the courts on the road to reform.

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