U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims
After nearly four decades of debate on the subject, Congress exercised its power under Article I of the Constitution and passed the Veterans Judicial Review Act of 1988 (VJRA) (102 Stat. 4105 [38 U.S.C.A. § 4051] [recodified at 38 U.S.C.A. § 7252 (1991)]). Originally called the U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals, the new court came into existence on November 18, 1988, the day President george h. w. bush signed the VJRA. Subsequent legislation changed the name of the court on March 1, 1999, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
One of several specialized federal courts established by Congress under Article I—including the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the U.S. Tax Court—the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims exercises exclusive jurisdiction over the decisions of the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA). People seeking veterans' benefits who are turned down by the BVA may appeal their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Claimants may further avail themselves of the judiciary by appealing unfavorable U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims decisions to the limited review of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and ultimately to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In the mid-1980s, 75 million U.S. citizens—one-third of the population of the United States—were eligible for some form of veterans' benefits. Then, as in the early 2000s, war veterans and their dependents and survivors could apply to one of the 58 regional offices of the veterans administration (VA) for disability, loan eligibility, education, and other benefits. In an average year in the 1980s, nearly 800,000 disability claims were filed, about half of which were granted by the regional offices. Before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims was created, people whose claims were turned down had limited recourse, which did not include review by a court of law. If a regional office of the VA denied a claim, the claimant could appeal that decision within the VA to the BVA. If the BVA denied the appeal—which it did in about 75 percent of cases—the claimant had just one remaining option: to reopen the claim on the basis of new and material evidence and begin the process over again.
Consisting of one chief judge and two to six associate judges—all appointed to a term of 15 years by the president of the United States with the advice and consent of the Senate—the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has the "power to affirm, modify, or reverse a decision of the [BVA] or to remand the matter, as appropriate" (38 U.S.C.A. § 4051 (a) [recodified at 38 U.S.C.A. § 7252 (a) (1991)]). (When a court remands a case, it sends the case back to the lower court or, in the instance of the BVA, ruling body.) The Veterans Appeals Court's primary mission, according to Associate Judge John J. Farley, is to review cases for errors of law. As an appellate court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims cannot hear new testimony or allow new evidence to be introduced in a case. Cases are heard by judges sitting alone, in panels of three, or en banc (all together).
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims heard its first case—Erspamer v. Derwinski, 1 Vet. App. 3, 58 U.S.L.W. 2556—in February 1990. Jean A. Erspamer, the widow of Ernest Erspamer, a Minnesota veteran exposed to radiation during atomic bomb tests in the Pacific in 1946, asked the court to compel the VA to take action on her claims for disability compensation and death benefits. Erspamer's husband had in June 1979 filed with the VA a claim for service-connected disability payments. After he died of leukemia in 1980, Erspamer continued to seek VA benefits and was eventually successful in her quest—after the Veterans Appeals Court heard her case.
In July 1999 the court issued a decision which held that the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) did not have a duty to assist veterans in developing their claims unless those claims were "well-grounded." In response Congress passed the Veterans Claims Assistance Act (VCAA) of 2000 (Pub.L. 106-475, Nov. 9, 2000, 114 Stat. 2096). Signed into law by President bill clinton in November 2000, the act eliminated the "well-grounded" language and stated that the VA was required to provide assistance in developing claims unless there was no reasonable possibility that VA aid would help the veteran's claim.
Based in Washington, D.C., but able to convene anywhere in the country, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims can only decide cases or controversies presented to it. The court is not a policy-making body and thus may not conduct policy actions, such as reviewing the VA schedule of disability ratings. While most of the cases heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims concern issues of entitlement to disability or survivor's benefits, the court has also heard cases relating to education benefits, life insurance, and home foreclosures.
"Fourteenth Annual Judicial Conference of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Report" (Panel Discussion). 1997. West's Federal Rules Decisions 170 (May).
Fox, William F. 2000. The United States Board of Veterans' Appeals: The Unfinished Struggle to Reconcile Speed and Justice During Intra-Agency Review. Washington, D.C.: Paralyzed Veterans of America.
U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Available online at <www.vetapp.gov> (accessed February 24, 2004).