Jessica M. Karmasek Nov. 21, 2013, 6:45pm

NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) -- While most of the spotlight has been on federal appeals court vacancies, beset by filibusters and the GOP's obstruction, an updated analysis shows that trial courts are facing similar challenges.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, a self-described nonpartisan law and policy institute that "seeks to improve the nation's systems of democracy and justice," released a study Thursday showing the number of federal district court vacancies are surging.

The Brennan Center first documented the trend -- which it called "troubling" -- in July.

Since then, the number of district court vacancies has increased from 65 to 75 open seats, an 11 percent vacancy rate.

The current vacancy level, the center notes, is "substantially higher" than what existed at the same point in President Bill Clinton's second term -- 55 -- or President George W. Bush's second term -- 35.

"Our trial courts are in trouble," said Alicia Bannon, counsel at the Brennan Center. "As seats remain unfilled, millions of Americans who rely on district courts are being denied the justice they deserve. District courts can no longer wait.

"The President and the Senate must find a way to fill these crucial seats."

According to the center's updated study, for the first time since 1992, the average number of district court vacancies has been greater than 60 for five straight years, from 2009-13.

The 2013 average vacancy level currently sits at 69 vacancies.

The number of "judicial emergencies" also has grown, rising from 25 in June to 29 this month.

Several factors account for the vacancies, the center has found: an "atypically large" number of retirements during President Barack Obama's first three years in office; fewer total district court nominees confirmed during his first term; and record wait times from nomination to confirmation in the Senate.

Obama also nominated fewer judges during his first three years compared to his predecessors, while many home state senators have been slow to recommend nominees.

The unusually high judicial vacancy levels coupled with unprecedented workloads are burdening the federal district courts like never before, Bannon said.

To view a copy of the updated findings, click here.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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