Our nation is disadvantaged when our federal judiciary does not have sufficient judges to hear cases and resolve disputes in a thorough and timely fashion. In districts struggling under excessive caseloads and too few judges, vacancies make it impossible for the remaining judges to keep up with the workload. This has real consequences for communities and businesses because short-handed courts have no choice but to delay civil trial dockets due to the Speedy Trial Act. In these jurisdictions, persistent vacancies increase the length of time that litigants and businesses wait for their day in court, create pressures that “robotize” justice, and increase case backlogs that will perpetuate delays for years to come. These pressures, if left unchecked, inevitably will alter the delivery and quality of justice and erode public confidence in our federal judicial system.
The negative consequences of unfilled vacancies have been exacerbated by the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by sequestration. Staff layoffs/furloughs and reductions in services and operating hours implemented in courts across the country have made it even more difficult for courts—especially those with too few judges to keep up with caseloads and deliver timely justice.
The combination of too few judges and insufficient funding is creating a resource crisis for the federal judiciary. To remedy this growing problem, the ABA calls on the President and Congress to fill judicial vacancies promptly and to protect the federal judiciary from future deficit reduction by increasing its FY 2014 funding to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s recommended level of $6.67 billion.
To achieve a significant and lasting reduction in the vacancy rate, the Administration and the Senate must make the prompt filing of federal judicial vacancies an ongoing priority, and the political branches must refrain from delaying votes on nominees for reasons not associated with their qualifications and resolve to work cooperatively and across the political aisle to give each nominee an up or down vote within a reasonable time after the Senate Judiciary Committee reports the nominee.
While speeding the pace of confirmations is essential to reducing the vacancy rate, given the high rate of attrition, it nonetheless is only one part of the problem; lasting progress also requires a more timely nomination process. A constant flow of nominees in the pipeline keeps the process moving and creates additional incentive for the Senate to schedule prompt votes. The White House and Members of the Senate need to make a concerted effort to work together to shorten the time between vacancy and nomination, especially for those vacancies classified judicial emergencies. Because of the deference traditionally given to senators with regard to filling district court vacancies, senators should be prepared to identify potential nominees and to submit recommendations to the President as early as possible after a future district court vacancy in the state is announced.