Weis, Joseph Francis, Jr.

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Weis, Joseph Francis, Jr.

In March 1989, senior federal appeals court judge Joseph Francis Weis Jr. was handed the awesome task of chairing a congressional committee to examine issues and problems facing U.S. courts and to develop a long-range plan for the future of the federal judiciary. Though segments of the U.S. court system had been examined and fine-tuned throughout U.S. history, the formation of the Federal Courts Study Committee in 1989 marked the first time in almost one hundred years that any entity was granted such broad and sweeping authority to review the system and propose changes to it. Professor Daniel J. Meador, of the University of Virginia School of Law, called the mandate a "once-in-a-century undertaking." The only analogous review of the federal courts took place in the 1890s and resulted in the creation of the federal courts of appeals.

Under Weis's leadership, the Federal Courts Study Committee took just 15 months to produce a monumental report containing one hundred specific recommendations for U.S. court reform. Many of the committee's recommendations were adopted immediately, and others were expected to influence court reform well into the twenty-first century.

Congress chose the right person to chair the historic committee. Weis's natural abilities as a leader and a consensus builder have been evident throughout his life. Born March 12, 1923, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Weis was the first of four sons in the family of Joseph Francis Weis and Mary Flaherty Weis. He graduated from local schools and set out to follow a path inspired by his father, a prominent trial attorney.

Weis entered Duquesne University in 1941 with the intention of attending law school immediately after graduation. His plans, however, were interrupted by World War II. In 1943, Weis left college to enlist. He fought in France with the Third Army's Fourth Armored Division, and was wounded twice during his tour of duty. Weis returned home with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He continued to serve in the Army Reserve long after he returned to college. Weis retired with the rank of captain in 1948.

Weis received a bachelor of arts degree from Duquesne University in 1947 and a doctor of jurisprudence degree from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1950. While in law school, he developed an interest in scholarly writing as editor of the law review.

Admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1950, Weis joined three former classmates to establish the law firm of Sheriff, Lindsay, Weis, and McGinnis. Two years later he realized a lifelong dream when he partnered with his father in the firm of Weis and Weis. Weis's three younger brothers joined the firm as they completed their studies, creating a thriving family enterprise.

A skillful trial attorney like his father, Weis was active in the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County from 1960 to 1968, serving as president from 1966 to 1967. He became a recognized expert on trial procedures and was a frequent lecturer on the subject.

His expertise led to an appointment as judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in 1968. In May 1970 Weis was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. In February 1973 President richard m. nixon appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Early in his career on the federal bench, Weisw showcased his expertise on International Law when he authored the opinion in Mannington Mills v. Congoleum Corp., 595 F.2d 1287 (3d Cir. 1979). This oft-cited opinion made him a sought-after member of many international legal forums.

"Sentences are inevitably only approximations and [legislative] efforts to make them scientifically precise are doomed to failure."
—Joseph Francis Weis Jr.

Weis also authored a number of important opinions in the field of legal and judicial ethics. One of these was the dissenting opinion in Garden State Bar Ass'n v. Middlesex County Ethics Committee, 651 F.2d 154 (3d Cir. 1981), which was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court (Middlesex County Ethics Committee v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423, 102 S. Ct. 2515, 73 L. Ed. 2d 116 [1982]). Another was the majority opinion in Stretton v. Disciplinary Board, 944 F.2d 137 (3d Cir. 1991), which reversed a lower court's ruling that struck down a Pennsylvania judicial ethics rule barring judicial candidates from telling voters about their legal and political views.

It was, however, in the areas of technology, courtroom design, structure, rules, and administration that Weis truly distinguished himself. In the Third Circuit he chaired committees experimenting with videoconference arguments and videotape trial proceedings. For the Judicial Conference of the United States, Weis was chairman of the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure, member of the Committee on Administration of the Bankruptcy System, member of the Subcommittee on Judicial Improvements, and chairman of the Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Civil Rules. For the American Bar Association, he served on the Committee on Technology and the Courts and the Committee on Design of Court Rooms and Court Facilities.

In 1989, after 16 years on the federal bench and hundreds of hours of committee service, Weis announced that he would take senior (or semiretired) status and begin winding down his judicial career. His timing could not have been worse. At the time of his announcement, he did not know that Chief Justice william h. rehnquist was about to tap him for the most demanding and significant task of his judicial career.

For years Congress had considered various bills to study mounting procedural and workload problems in the U.S. courts. In the fall of 1988 Congress finally created the Federal Courts Study Committee (Pub. L. No. 100-702, 102 Stat. 4644 [1988] [codified at 28 U.S.C.A. § 331]). Unlike previous committees that were conceived to examine parts of the court system, the Federal Courts Study Committee was charged with examining issues and problems facing the entire court system in the United States—and with developing the first ever long-range plan for addressing the issues and correcting the problems. Chief Justice Rehnquist appointed 15 committee members, including federal and state judges, members of Congress, private attorneys, a state public defender, and a Justice Department official. He named Weis to chair the committee.

Weis assumed the leadership role with his characteristic sense of duty. For the first three months following his appointment, Weis and his committee conducted a thorough survey of the federal judiciary to help focus the issues and problems. They also solicited input from citizens' groups, bar associations, research groups, law school deans and other academics, chief probation officers, pretrial services chiefs, and federal public defenders.

By December 1989, they had drafted a preliminary report that clearly focused on the over-riding problem and made a number of recommendations for addressing it. Workload was cited as the biggest barrier to efficiency and equal justice. Between 1958 and 1988, the number of cases filed in the district courts had tripled, and the number of appeals filed in the circuits had increased more than tenfold. Public hearings on the preliminary report were held in nine U.S. cities beginning in January 1990.

The final report was presented to the president of the United States, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress, the Conference of State Chief Justices, and the State Justice Institute in the spring of 1990. It outlined one hundred substantive changes in the areas of court administration and operation, designed to reduce the workload and enhance the quality of U.S. justice. Among the recommendations: redirect narcotics cases to state courts, narrow the jurisdiction of federal courts, create a tier of specialized courts (a disability claims court and special bankruptcy appeals panels), and encourage Alternative Dispute Resolution in civil cases. Sixteen procedural and noncontroversial recommendations were introduced and passed during the following congressional session.

On April 26, 1993, Weis was awarded the Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, which is administered by the American Judicature Society. This award is named for Edward J. Devitt, a former chief U.S. district judge for Minnesota. It acknowledges the dedication and contributions to justice made by all federal judges, by recognizing the specific achievements of one judge who has contributed significantly to the profession. Weis was honored for his work on the Federal Courts Study Committee and a lifetime achievement in the area of court reform.

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, Weis continued to be involved in judicial reform. In 1999, he gave testimony to the Commission on Structural Alternatives for the Federal Courts of Appeals in which he proposed that the United States should have a unified federal appellate system with one U. S. Court of Appeals that would cover the entire country. In June of 2001, Weis became involved in controversy just days before the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. A federal judge issued an order that would permit videotaping of McVeigh's execution for an unrelated case attempting to allege that Capital Punishment is Cruel and Unusual Punishment. On June 8, 2001, Weis issued a stay of the judge's ruling pending further consideration by a panel of three circuit court judges in Philadelphia. The panel overturned the federal judge's order and McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001.

Further readings

American Judicature Society. 1990. "Future of Our Federal Courts." Judicature 74 (June–July).

Carmody, Cris. 1990. "Federal Courts Study Committee Issues Final Report." Judicature 74 (June–July).

Rehnquist, William H., et al. 1988. "A Tribute to the Honorable Joseph F. Weis, Jr." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 49 (summer).

Weis, Joseph F., Jr. 1992. "The Federal Sentencing Guide-lines—It's Time for a Reappraisal." American Criminal Law Review (spring).

——. 1989. "The Federal Rules and the Hague Conventions: Concerns of Conformity." University of Pittsburgh Law Review 50 (spring).

——. 1989."The Federal Courts Study Committee Begins Its Work." St. Mary's Law Journal 21.