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November 01, 2013

ABA says judicial shortages impacting federal courts

The ABA told the House Judiciary Committee last month that “the combination of too few judges and insufficient funding is diminishing the ability of the federal courts to serve the people and deliver timely justice.”

 “When federal courts do not have sufficient judges to keep up with the workload, civil trial dockets take a back seat to criminal dockets due to the Speedy Trial Act,” ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman wrote in an Oct. 29 letter for the record of a hearing entitled “Are More Judges Always the Answer?”

He explained that persistent shortages of judges increase the length of time that civil 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. This has real consequences for the financial well-being of communities and businesses and for the personal lives of litigants whose cases must be heard in federal courts, he said.

Susman noted that since the last comprehensive judgeship bill was enacted in 1990, a steady and steep increase in federal judicial caseloads has been fueled in large part by congressional expansion of federal court jurisdiction and national drug and immigration policies that call for and fund enhanced law enforcement efforts. Since that time, Congress has authorized only 34 additional district court judgeships while allowing a half-dozen temporary judgeships in other districts to expire.

Consequently, district courts have experienced a 39 percent increase in filings, but only a four percent increase in judgeships. In addition, the number of appellate judges has not changed despite a 34 percent increase in filings since 1991.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, which analyses the court’s needs for judges every two years, has recommended the addition of five permanent judgeships and one temporary judgeship for the courts of appeals and 65 permanent judgeships and 20 temporary judgeships for the district courts. Also recommended by the group is the conversion of eight existing temporary district court judgeships to permanent status.

Susman expressed ABA support for S. 1385, a bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) to implement the Judicial Conference recommendations.

Acknowledging that some members of Congress question the methodology by which weighted and adjusted case filings are determined and caseload minimums are set to decide the need for judges, the ABA urged collaboration among Congress, the Judicial Conference and the Government Accountability Office to resolve the impasse over the methods so that the needs of the U.S. courts can be met.

Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) called the Oct. 29 hearing to focus specifically on whether filling the three vacant seats on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which he said has the lowest caseload in the country, is the best use of limited taxpayer dollars.

The Senate has prevented the D.C. Circuit vacancies from being filled this fall by failing to garner the 60 votes required to invoke cloture for three nominees: Patricia Millett, Cornelia Pillard and Robert Wilkins. Opponents maintain that these nominations by President Obama are an attempt to “pack” the 11-member court with a majority of judges appointed by Democratic presidents. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and 17 other Republicans have proposed S. 699, a bill to decrease the D.C. Circuit from 11 to eight judges by transferring two of the vacancies to other circuits and eliminating the third.  

During the House hearing, Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, emphasized the importance of filling the D.C. Circuit vacancies.

“The D.C. Circuit handles some of the most complex, lengthy, sensitive litigation in the federal courts,” she said, explaining that it is the court that most closely oversees actions of federal agencies on topics like the environment, consumer protections, workers’ rights, banking regulations and other vital issues. “It makes no sense to shortchange the court that handles some of the toughest cases with the biggest impacts,” she said.

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