Study: Increased judicial vacancies, heavy caseloads hurting federal district courts

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jul 2, 2013

NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) -- Unusually high judicial vacancy levels, coupled with unprecedented workloads, are burdening federal district courts, according to a new study.

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 the study Tuesday.

The center's analysis examined data on federal district court vacancies and judicial workloads since 1992.

Its findings suggest that the judicial vacancy levels, in particular, are starting to affect how the nation's courts function.

"Our trial courts are in trouble," said Alicia Bannon, author of the report and counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"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."

The center's study shows that for the first time in 20 years, judicial vacancies averaged more than 60 vacant seats for five straight years from 2009-13, breaking historic patterns and delaying the resolution of critical legal disputes in civil and criminal trials.

Among the study's key findings:

- As of July 1, there were 65 district court vacancies out of a total of 677 judgeships -- a 10 percent vacancy rate, with four additional vacancies expected in the next two weeks and 23 nominees pending before the Senate. Contrast that to the 4.4 percent average district court vacancy rate that former President George W. Bush experienced during his fifth year in office;

- The average per-judge caseload in 2009-12 was 13 percent higher than the average for the preceding four years. Had all vacancies been filled between 2009 and 2012, judges would have had an average of 42 fewer pending cases each year; and

- Judicial vacancies are particularly harmful in some districts. Analysis shows that judicial emergencies -- a designation of districts with an acute need for judges -- have been higher in 2010-12 than at any other point since 2002.

"Our findings suggest that to fully address the increasing district court workload, more judgeships are required -- further highlighting the importance of filling vacant seats now," according to the report.

Most controversy over judicial vacancies has focused on federal appeals courts, beset by filibusters and congressional inaction, the report notes.

But the center's analysis shows trial courts face similar challenges.

According to the study, the courts' judicial vacancies have remained "unusually high" throughout President Barack Obama's presidency, with annual vacancies averaging significantly higher than those experienced during Bush's presidency.

Several factors account for the vacancies, the center found: an "atypically large" number of retirements during 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 resulting sustained high level of judicial vacancies has troubling implications for district courts and their ability to effectively resolve cases," according to the report.

To view a copy of the study, click here.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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