Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
During his stirring Veterans Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery earlier this month, President Obama talked about the urgent need to reduce the Department of Veterans Affairs’ enormous backlog of veteran disability claims, which is now at more than 1.1 million. 

"No veteran should have to wait months or years for the benefits that you’ve earned, so we will continue to attack the claims backlog," Obama said. "We won’t let up. We will not let up."

This past week, Obama backed up his rhetoric with action by addressing one of the little-known reasons why this backlog has climbed so rapidly: vacant judge seats on the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC).

These vacancies have substantially slowed the claims process for countless veterans, several sources say. But on Thursday, with no fanfare and with inexplicably no resulting media coverage, Obama nominated a reserve brigadier general, William Greenberg, to fill the ninth and final seat on the CAVC.

This is the third judge's seat on this court to be filled by Obama just this past year, and many veterans advocates say that this nomination, which is expected to be approved by the Senate, will have a demonstrable impact on the backlog.

“This is a significant development for veterans," says veterans advocate Paul Sullivan. “It should put a huge dent in the court inventory."

The CAVC, a relatively obscure but vitally important federal court that operates out of an old office building in Washington DC on Indiana Avenue, reviews certain decisions made by the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA), which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). 

But as important as its role is, the CAVC, whose judges serve either thirteen- or fifteen-year appointments, doesn’t get the respect or attention it deserves.

Says one advocate, who asked not to be named because he works closely with both the VA and the court, “Just imagine if the Supreme Court had missing judges for four years. That would certainly not be tolerated. The shorthanded judges at CAVC, who are paid less than other federal appeals court judges, have been burdened with ridiculous caseloads."

A CAVC report summarizing the workload of the court for 2011 notes that in 2011, "the Court averaged 288 appeals decided on the merits per active judge. For purposes of comparison, from Sept. 30, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011, for the 12 circuit courts of appeals, this was the highest number of merits decisions per active judge.”

According to the report, the number of merits decisions per active judge for those courts “ranged from 55 (DC Circuit) to 234 (11th Circuit). The CAVC had 681 filings per active judge, based on the 4,085 appeals and petitions filed in 2011. The number of filings per active judge for the circuit courts of appeals ranged from 126 (DC Circuit) to 623 (11th Circuit).”

Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, tells me the committee is currently gathering information from Greenberg.

"Chairman Murray looks forward to considering this nomination in a timely fashion,” says McAlvanah. “The Senator knows the backlog (for veteran disability benefits) is overwhelming and unacceptable, and this court seat has been vacant for too long. We want to get this moving as quickly as possible." 

While none of my colleagues in the national press reported the nomination - not even the military press - Bergmann & Moore, the Maryland-based law firm that focuses its practice solely on veterans disability issues, has been touting the need for the President to fill this court seat.

On the day after the election, the firm raised a number of issues on its website that it thinks will be of great importance to veterans in Obama's second term as president. One of them was this vacant court seat. 

Glenn Bergmann, a partner at Bergmann & Moore and the former CAVC Bar Association President, says, "We hope to learn more about William Greenberg during the confirmation process. Veterans and the attorneys representing veterans see the President’s nomination as good news, and they look forward to a time when all nine seats on the Court are filled so the Court can decide more Veterans’ appealed disability claims."

This is a new seat created by Congress in 2008. There were two newly created seats and one vacancy last year. One new seat and the vacancy were filled earlier this year. The White House nominated a third person last year, but she withdrew. Greenberg is the second attempt by the administration to fill one of the new seats.

Will Greenberg, if he is appointed, be a staunch ally for veterans on the court? While no one can say for sure, many people I've talked to this week are cautiously optimistic. 

Greenberg, an attorney who served in the Reserve Components of the United States Army for 27 years, was just awarded the “2012 Leadership in Military Justice Award” by the GI Go Fund for his partnership with that organization to create the Veterans Justice Initiative.

This program takes veterans in Newark, New Jersey that are involved in low level offenses and brings them into an alternative sentencing structure that provides veterans with connections to benefits assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Labor and Social Security Administration, as well as employment opportunities, mentorship and housing assistance that help curb a veterans dependency on criminal behavior

Greenberg, who served last year as chairman of the Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA), was chairman of the Reserve Forces Policy Board at the Department of Defense, and founded the NJSBA Military Legal Assistance Program, which provides legal assistance to recent veterans.

Greenberg, who's also an adjunct professor of military law at Seton Hall University School of Law, received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service in 2011 and was named New Jersey Lawyer of the Year in 2009 by the New Jersey Law Journal. 

The fact that the CAVC's judge seats will apparently now be filled is good news in and of itself. But it also appears veterans will have an ally in Greenberg, though that remains to be seen.

In his announcement of the Greenberg nomination last weekObama said, “I am confident that Mr. Greenberg will greatly serve the American people in his new role and I look forward to working with him in the months and years to come."

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