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Special veterans court marks 25th anniversary

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 12:43 PM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Court gives veterans chance to challenge individual decisions made by Veterans Affairs
  • The court's work is little noticed, but experts say it provides invaluable service
  • Claims appeal process is potentially time-consuming and bureaucratically complex
  • Nearly all the nine judges on the current court have served in the military

(CNN) -- The tiny courtroom tucked away in a downtown office building had almost no spectators on a recent Thursday.

And the cases being argued before a panel of judges were not blockbusters or precedent-setting in any way.

But to current and former military men and women seeking judicial relief, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims is a legal lifeline. Perhaps it is their last chance to get the full disability compensation they believe they're owed.

The nation's newest federal court is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, giving those who served in the military a chance to challenge individual decisions made by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The court's work is little noticed, but legal experts and veterans advocates say it provides an invaluable service.

"That we have a specialized veteran's court is a credit to our national commitment to do justice by 'him who shall have borne the battle' in President Lincoln's words,'" said Justice Antonin Scalia in April.

About 60,000 such appeals have been filed with the court in the past quarter century, and the nine judges now take on about 4,000 cases annually.

Wilson Ausmer, Jr.'s claim is typical. The decorated U.S. Army veteran served stateside in Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as in Qatar and Afghanistan.

According to his appeal, the Missouri man was awarded VA disability compensation for diseases and injuries during his military service, which included post-traumatic stress disorder. But he had a pending claim with the Veterans Affairs for an earlier physical ailment.

It was while he was in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom-- after being recalled to active duty in 2001-- that he received a notice from the department's internal review board, denying part of the claim.

The letter was sent to his home in Missouri and Ausmer argues he was not able to file an appeal until after he returned home. By then it was too late, and the missed deadline was not extended.

The issue was whether the way the notice was mailed-- while he was overseas -- and the "particular circumstances" of Ausmer's mental and physical condition, should have merited him extra time.

"LTC Ausmer states that for the first few months after returning home, he had anxiety attacks and a difficult time adjusting to civilian life," said his lawyers, who also pointed out chronic foot, back, and knee pain. "Consequently, he spent the first few months at home trying to 'de-stress' from his service in Afghanistan."

His attorneys at the oral arguments included three Harvard Law School students, who had volunteered their service. One of them, Christopher Melendez is a former Marine.

The judges had traveled from Washington to Cambridge to conduct the hearing in Harvard's ceremonial Ames courtroom. It is part of a nationwide outreach program by the federal court to inspire young lawyers to help needy veterans.

Advocates say there is a national need for such legal representation, especially pro bono work.

Citing a massive claims backlog, the House of Representatives last month passed a bill to streamline the disability claims appeal process. The measure would create a 15-member commission to find ways to simplify and reduce the paperwork.

VA records shows there were more than 404,000 claims pending this month.

The claims appeal process is potentially time-consuming and bureaucratically complex, and can involve numerous offices, including internal reviews by the Veterans Benefits Administration, then upward to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

The special federal court with national jurisdiction where Ausmer's case was heard was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Until that time the department had been sheltered from independent judicial review, and VA officials had initially opposed creation of the court.

Nearly all the nine judges on the current court have served in the military, and all have prior experience dealing with veterans and related service organizations. They are nominated by the president and typically serve 15-year terms.

Chief Judge Bruce Kasold is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, with service in the Air Defense Artillery and Judge Advocate General's Corps. He also served in various offices at the U.S. Senate, as well as in private practice.

As for Ausmer, his case is pending, with the Veterans Claims Court set to issue a written ruling in coming months.

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