On Thursday, November 8th, Chief Judge Robert N. Davis of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims gave the 2018 Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Lecture at Harvard Law School to an audience of students, faculty, staff, and members of the veterans community. The Chief Judge’s Lecture was entitled “The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims: The newest Federal Court experiment, past, present and future.” Opening remarks were provided by the National Adjutant of DAV, Marc Burgess.
Chief Judge Davis—a Navy veteran who joined the Court in 2004—spoke about the history of veterans law, the origins of the Veterans Court, and present challenges facing the Veterans Court in its role reviewing benefit decisions of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Chief Judge Davis chronicled the evolution of veterans law from World War I to the present day, including discussion of the Veterans Judicial Review Act of 1988 that introduced court review for veterans claims and established the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. Chief Judge Davis highlighted the need for continued innovation, noting how much “[o]ur veterans legal landscape has evolved from its early days,” and challenging audience members to use their own voices—as veterans, students, advocates, pro bono attorneys—to prompt the significant change required to provide the services that veterans will need in the future.
Chief Judge Davis also discussed the Court’s structure, accomplishments, and challenges. The Veterans Court is unique in terms of its exclusive jurisdiction over appeals from the Board of Veterans Appeals, as well as the way which the vast majority of appeals are decided by single-judge non-precedential decisions. The Veterans Court has a tremendous caseload, handling over 7,000 cases in 2018. Among its challenges, the Chief Judge stated that the Veterans Court is “grappling with how to efficiently decide more panels, decide class actions, and deal with an increasing case load.”
Looking ahead to the future of veterans’ law, Chief Judge Davis stressed the importance of pushing for overhaul of the veterans claims system. He stated that while many veterans are able to navigate the veterans claims system in a reasonable way, “any time it takes a veteran years to get a final decision on a claim, the system is broken.”
He ended his lecture by urging the veterans community to continue working towards positive change in the veterans claims system, pointing to the progressive evolution of veterans law over time. “Veterans law is maturing. The Court has carried out their vision of a place where veterans can go to get fair, efficient justice.” Finally, Chief Judge Davis left the audience with a call to action, declaring, “We have a voice. We need to start using it.”
After his lecture, Chief Judge Davis answered a range of questions from the audience, including the role of pro bono attorneys at the Court, the impact of presumptive diagnoses for disabilities, and the appellate reforms to be implemented under the Appeals Modernization Act.
The event was hosted by the Veterans Legal Clinic of the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, in partnership with the HLS Armed Forces Association. The lecture was the 5th annual event in the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsored the DAV Charitable Service Trust. The Speaker Series provides a forum for national leaders to address the critical issues facing our nation’s disabled veterans and to engage in conversation with the local community. Prior speakers include then-Secretary of the U.S. Navy Ray Mabus, the founder of the first veterans treatment court Judge Robert Russell, and former VA Secretaries David Shulkin and Robert McDonald.