Opinion: Nation Facing Federal Court Vacancy ‘Crisis’

Judicial-VacanciesAs a result of politicized efforts to stall or block the confirmation of qualified U.S. judges,  “we are in the midst of the worst federal court vacancy crisis since 1953,” Michele Jawando of the Center for American Progress writes in a Philly.com op-ed.

Pennsylvania is one of the states with the most judicial vacancies, and it illustrates the impact of the crisis, she says: “Pennsylvanians are being denied timely access to a judicial system that is usually their last resort for critical issues such as citizenship status, access to health care, environmental pollution, employment disputes, and basic civil rights.” She cites the nomination of Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo for the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, awaiting a Senate vote (see Gavel Grab), as an example of political obstructionism in the Senate. (more…)

Leahy Fears ‘Judicial Vacancy Crisis’ In the Offing

CapitolflagWith the Senate having confirmed only a handful of judicial nominees so far this year at the hands of Republicans who “have virtually shut down the confirmation process, we are headed to a judicial vacancy crisis,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Leahy is senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee’s Republican chairman, has countered that the committee has been doing its job holding nomination hearings and that foes have distorted the actual track record of the Senate, in Republican hands since January. (more…)

Amid Wave of Vacancies, U.S. Judges ‘Burned Out, Overworked’

empty-bench1Across the country, numerous federal court judges are spread thin, facing a backlog of cases, calling on semiretired judges for help and wondering if they will ever get reinforcements, a lengthy Huffington Post article says.

Jennifer Bendery’s article is chock full of data about vacant judgeships, high caseloads, deemed “judicial emergencies” and partisan politics in Washington over filling the vacancies. It also gives a glimpse of the impact of vacancies on people who use the courts: “The problem is, when court seats go unfilled, cases get seriously delayed and regular people suffer. In a civil case, that means someone suing an employer for discrimination will wait years to go before a judge. In a criminal case, that means defendants can finish their jail terms before their case is even resolved.” (more…)

Judicial Vacancy Epidemic Continues to Sweep Across the States

Texas & CaliforniaCalifornia and Texas are only two of many states impacted by a judicial vacancy epidemic that has struck the nation in recent years.

The Associated Press addresses the issue with an article titled, “Wheels of Justice Slow at Overloaded Federal Courts.” The AP cites the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the rising delay in resolving civil and criminal cases because of judges’ ever-increasing workload.

The article says that the challenges are “particularly acute” in some federal courts where the judges deal with double the workload of the national average, like in the Eastern Districts of California and Texas.

Not only has the Eastern District of California had a judicial vacancy for almost three years, the article says, but the court has not had an increase in judges since 1978, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The AP reports that California’s Eastern District in Fresno is currently sustained by only one full-time district court judge, Lawrence O’Neill. The situation in the Eastern District of Texas is similar, the AP says.

According to the article, Judge O’Neill says, “We can slow things down because we simply can’t work any harder or faster… But the real important effect of that is people who need our help to move their lives forward are delayed.” 

Matt Menendez, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice finds the judicial vacancies that the federal courts are facing today to be “quite bad.” The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

Legal scholars say, “Congress needs to fill judicial vacancies more quickly but also increase the number of judges in some districts — both issues that get bogged down in partisan political fights over judicial nominees,” according to the AP.

Opinion: U.S. Lawmakers Ignoring the Price of Judicial Vacancies?

“Shame on us all” for not paying enough attention to our courts, columnist Lori Sturdevant of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes in criticizing Senate foot-dragging on President Obama’s judicial nominations this year.

Sturdevant takes Republican senators to task for not moving quickly enough to confirm Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina Wright to the federal district court, and in the case of other nominees as well. And there can be a big price to pay for partisan delays over these nominations, she adds, saying it’s important even for journalists  to take responsibility: (more…)

Opinion: Vacancy Threatens Colorado’s Overburdened Federal Court

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado is struggling to handle too many cases with too few judges, says a Colorado Statesman op-ed, expressing concern for the state’s citizens who “cannot get timely justice or resolution of disputes”.

Currently, only seven judges handle all of the state’s civil and criminal trial-level cases.  Despite the growing number of Coloradans, Congress has not increased the number of judges since 1984, the op-ed says. The understaffed, overloaded District Court may face a greater change if the number of full-time judges drops to six. According to the op-ed,  U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn announced he will be taking senior status starting in April 2016.

The op-ed was written by Dave Montez, executive director of One Colorado Education Fund. He notes that Colorado’s two U.S. senators “have each created separate screening committees that do not appear to be planning to work together.” Montez also advocates for diversity on the bench, saying the judicial vacancy “provides an opportunity for our senators to select candidates who reflect the diversity of our state.”



Judicial Vacancies Rising, Confirmations Dropping

The Huffington Post addresses the U.S. Senate’s delayed action on judicial confirmations across the states in a column headlined, “Congratulations, GOP. You’re Confirming Judges At The Slowest Rate In 60 Years”.

According to the article, an analysis by Alliance for Justice found that “six confirmations is the slowest single-year pace since the Senate confirmed a total of nine judges in 1953.” It adds that the number of judicial emergencies has increased by 158 percent. Currently, there are 32 other judicial nominees whose confirmations are pending in the U.S. Senate as vacancies continue to rise, according to the piece.

Meanwhile, the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune reports that an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Wilhelmina Wright, was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to become a federal district judge in Minnesota. But “whether she will be confirmed by the gridlocked Senate this year remains a question mark,” the Star Tribune notes.

And in Florida, where several judicial emergencies exist, First Judicial Circuit Judge Jan Shackelford is one of three finalists selected to be a federal judge in the state’s North District, according to the Pensacola News Journal. Once the president announces a nominee, the confirmation will await the Senate’s vote, which could take a significant amount of time.  Floridian Mary Barzee Flores was nominated for a position on the federal bench for the Southern District in Florida six months ago and is still awaiting confirmation. See Gavel Grab.


Senate Unanimously Confirms Federal Judge for Texas

Judge Bennett
Judge Bennett

Alfred Bennett, presiding judge for the 61st Civil District Court of Texas, was confirmed 95-0 by the U.S. Senate on Monday for a federal district court judgeship. It was the first judicial confirmation vote taken by the Senate this year.

A San Antonio Express-News report said Texas has 11 judicial vacancies, more than any other state, and confirmation votes on two other judicial nominees for the federal judiciary in Texas remain in limbo.

“Majority Leader McConnell and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, need to oil the judicial confirmation machinery they’ve allowed to rust over since they’ve taken control, and get the gears of justice moving efficiently again,” said Judith Schaeffer, vice president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. (more…)

Article: Too Few Judges Means Big Civil Case Backlogs in U.S. Courts

Backlogs of civil suits involving such issues as civil rights, personal injury and Social Security benefits are piling up in some federal courts around the nation, leading to justice delayed, a Wall Street Journal article says.

“Behind the backlog is a combination of population shifts, politics and a surge in the number of federal prisoners,” the newspaper reports. These federal prisoners — who have increased more than 50 percent in number since 1999 — file more lawsuits and challenges to their convictions. In Congress, efforts to create new judgeships, or shift judgeships to faster-growing regions where they are most need, have run into political resistance, and some judicial vacancies caught in political gridlock have gone unfilled for more than a year.

The number of pending civil cases had climbed to a record of more than 330,000  as of last October, an increase of nearly 20 percent since 2004. Last month, the  Judicial Conference of the United States asked Congress to create 68 new U.S. trial court judgeships. (more…)

On Judicial Vacancies

In a piece written for The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen discussed the increase in judicial vacancies during the Obama Administration and the consequences of having an absence of judges.  In his words, senators are “starving the federal courts of the trial judges they need to serve the basic legal needs of the litigants who come to court each year seeking redress of their grievances.”

Cohen suggests that the ongoing vacancy crisis could be the outgrowth of a strategy by some senators to minimize the number of nominees sent to the President,  and ultimately limit the number of judges the current White House gets to place on the bench.

Also cited in this piece, a study from the Center for American Progress identified a backlog of more than 12,000 federal cases in Texas where there are seven vacancies without nominees on the federal-trial bench.  For previous coverage of the “judicial emergency” districts in Texas, see Gavel Grab.