STATEMENT OF SENATOR LARRY E. CRAIG
CHAIRMAN, U.S. SENATE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
Battling the Backlog Part II: Challenges Facing the U.S. Court of Appeals
for Veterans Claims
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. The Committee on Veterans' Affairs will now come to order.
Today, we will continue this Committee's look at the veterans claims adjudication and appeal system. Last year, we held a hearing to examine challenges facing the Department of Veterans Affairs in processing and deciding veterans' claims for benefits. This morning, we will discuss some serious challenges facing the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which hears appeals from those decisions. More importantly, we will discuss what measures could be taken to help the Court deal with these challenges.
For this discussion, we are very pleased to be joined by the Court's Chief Judge, William P. Greene, Jr. He is accompanied by the Clerk of the Court, Norman Herring. Thank you for joining us.
We are also pleased that the Chairman of the Board of Veterans' Appeals, James Terry, is here for this discussion. He is accompanied by Assistant General Counsel Randy Campbell. They will be joined on panel two by Joe Violante from the Disabled American Veterans. Welcome to all of you.
Before I turn the floor over, I would like to comment on why I called this hearing.
I think Judge Greene would agree that the past few years have been ?transitional? years for the Court. The last of the ?original? judges ? who were appointed when the Court was first created ? all retired. And 6 new judges were confirmed in their places. Also, the
Court experienced a dramatic and unprecedented rise in the number of new cases it is receiving.
In fact, in fiscal year 2005 the Court received over 3400 new cases ? which is 37% higher than the Court had ever received in a single year. And this year, the Court expects to receive almost 3600 new cases.
Those factors have undoubtedly contributed to what is now the highest level of pending cases the Court has ever experienced ? over 5800 cases. That is more than double the number of cases that were pending just two years ago and more than 3 times the number of cases pending at the Court a decade ago.
Recognizing these trends, the Court has asked for ? and been provided with ? funding for additional staff in recent years. But, as you can see from the chart behind me, the Court, despite recent increases in productivity, has still been ?in the red? ? taking in more cases than go out.
If these trends continue, the number of pending cases may grow to almost 7000 by the end of next year and to 10,000 within the next five years.
As we all know, whatever cases come into the Court, must go back out. So, as the number of pending cases continues to grow, the workload the Court will have to deal with in future years also grows.
I know that, since becoming the Chief Judge last August, Judge Greene has been carefully examining various means of dealing with this situation, such as recalling retired judges and having judges conduct settlement conferences. Today, we will discuss those options ? and others measures ? that may help the Court handle this phenomenal caseload.
But the bottom line is that, if something is not done soon to reverse these trends, veterans seeking justice from the Court may have to wait in a line several years long to get their cases in front of a judge.
Particularly now, with thousands of wounded servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we must ensure that our veterans will receive timely decisions on their claims, whether the decision is to affirm, or to remand, or to reverse.
So, at the end of the day, I hope this Committee ? and our nation's veterans ? will have some assurance that measures will soon be taken to ensure that the Court can promptly dispense justice in all veterans cases, not just today, but for many years to come.
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