“The court will become overwhelmed if we don’t get the relief we need,” said William Greene, who is among six retired judges on whom the court is relying for help. “Having judges with cases in the triple digits is very stressful.”
At least part of the blame, say advocates for the nation’s 23 million veterans, rests with the Obama administration, which has made veterans a priority yet has not submitted nominations to fill the court’s bench, where three of the nine seats are vacant.
“I’m hugely disappointed,” said Glenn Bergmann, president of the bar association that represents veterans before the court. He is one of a number of advocates who have written the White House about the problem, with no response.
As veterans from previous wars age, they are facing economic uncertainty and service-related health problems, prompting new claims. With no statute of limitations, the current caseload is mostly appeals from peacetime veterans and those who served in the first Persian Gulf War, Vietnam and, in some instances, Korea and World War II. Still, the crisis at the court is likely to get worse, lawyers and judges say, pointing to a looming wave of new appeals expected from the Veterans Affairs, where injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are filing claims at historically high rates.
Congress created the court in 1988, after lobbying by Vietnam veterans. Before that, veterans who were denied benefits had no judicial recourse. One senior judge decided two cases, which had been dormant for months, in a single day, according to a lawyer for those veterans. “How can that happen in 24 hours?” said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to not offend the court. “Did he even read the briefs?”