Veterans’ issues were among the few things Congress agreed upon – before taking their August recess. That included senators confirming three new judges to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to reduce the massive backlog of disputed veterans’ claims.
University of Stetson College of Law professor Michael Allen is one of those new judges. He’s not a veteran. But at Stetson, Allen serves as director of its Veterans Law Institute and spent his last 12 years becoming an expert on veterans benefits law.
It’s admittedly an obscure specialty. So, Allen enlivens his legal arguments with humor and animal analogies.
For example, a hamster turning on a wheel is how Allen describes the veterans’ experience when asking for VA benefits. There are applications, assessments, medication and appeals. And at each turn, a case could be remanded - sent back - for more information like a new medical exam. It’s a complex and long process.
“So, these long periods of time may not be that the veteran is waiting in one place. It’s that they’re going around and around and around and that has been a problem in this entire system for quite some time,” Allen said.
Also adding to delays were four vacancies out of the nine seats on the appeals court. That was magnified by the 1.5 million new veterans’ claims filed every year and each of those claims has the potential of being appealed.
“From the time a veteran files a claim – if you assume that each stage of the process up to a decision by the court of appeals took the median amount of time,” Allen said referencing an article he wrote in 2015, “It was 1,666 days from beginning to end.”
That’s on average more than four and a half years. Allen is fond of pointing out that is longer than President Lincoln – an icon to veterans – served in office.
Last month – Allen faced a senate confirmation hearing in Washington D.C. where Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA) pressed him for ways to speed up the appeals process.
“Anything you as a judge can do,” Isakson said. “We have a huge problem of a stodgy, slow system right now which you could do to make that faster.”
Allen told the senate panel that, to him, speeding up the process is the most important thing a judge should have as a “conscious upfront goal.”
The veterans’ appeals court is less than 30 years old. Prior to its creation in 1988, veterans had no where to appeal outside of the VA if their benefits claim was denied. But because it’s relatively new, there’s little case law to set precedence which also slows decisions.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) reminded Allen and the other two court nominees, Amanda Meredith and Joseph Toth, that the individual veteran must be their primary focus.
“If you have met - and I hope you have – veterans who have waited years for their claims to be resolved and you hear and feel their justifiable anger - I would like you to feel that anger yourself,” Blumenthal said.
Allen has seen that anger through his work at Stetson.
But now, as a new judge, he likens his role to a baseball umpire who shouldn’t care if the batter is out or safe, instead, only care about the integrity of the game
“I think that being a judge is exactly the same in this regard,” Allen said. “You can’t have a predisposed ‘I want the veteran to win or I want the veteran to lose.’ You can’t be an advocate for that. But you can be an advocate for the system to operate fairly and for people to feel that they had a fair shot.”
And Allen hopes to eventually give veterans their “fair shot” without having to wait 1,666 days.