ABA: Too few judges, lack of funding hurting federal courts

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Nov 7, 2013

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- The American Bar Association, in a letter last week, says 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."

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- The American Bar Association, in a letter last week, says 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."

Thomas Susman, director of the ABA's Governmental Affairs Office, sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Robert Goodlatte to be made part of the record in a hearing on the need for federal judgeships.

Last week, Goodlatte, R-Va. and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, held a hearing titled, "Are More Judges Always the Answer?"

Goodlatte contends President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats see the courts as an avenue to advance their agendas.

"When the Senate Majority Leader said, 'We're focusing very intently on the D.C. Circuit' and 'We need at least one more. There's three vacancies. And that will switch the majority,' he clearly wasn't referring to the court's needs," he said during the Oct. 29 hearing.

But the ABA argues that when federal courts do not have sufficient judges to keep up with the workload, civil trial dockets end up taking a back seat to criminal dockets.

"As a result, persistent judge shortages 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," Susman wrote Goodlatte.

"This has real consequences for the financial well-being of communities and businesses and the personal lives of litigants whose cases must be heard by the federal courts -- examples include cases involving challenges to the constitutionality of a law, unfair business practices under federal antitrust laws, patent infringement, police brutality, employment discrimination, and bankruptcy."

And the situation only has been exacerbated by sequestration, the ABA argues.

Sequestration refers to a set of automatic federal spending cuts put into law by the Budget Control Act, signed by Obama in August 2011. The legislation raised the debt ceiling and was intended to put pressure on Congress to come up with a longer term plan for deficit reduction.

The $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, which were triggered March 1, will be spread over nine years and are equally divided between domestic and defense-related spending. The cuts are set to end in 2021.

"Staff layoffs and furloughs and reductions in services and operating hours implemented in courts across the country in response to sequestration have made it even more difficult for courts with too few judges to keep up with caseloads and deliver timely justice," Susman wrote.

The ABA, in its letter, made four suggestions that would help the judiciary "maintain its excellence" and serve people in a "timely and just manner." They are:

- Establish new judgeships in the five district courts singled out by the U.S. Judicial Conference for immediate relief -- the District of Arizona, the Eastern District of California, the District of Delaware, the Eastern District of Texas and the Western District of Texas;

- Convert eight temporary judgeships into permanent judgeships or at least extend their temporary status for 10 years or more;

- Consider the impact of legislation on the workload of the federal courts, and take steps to assure that the judiciary has sufficient resources to handle new responsibilities resulting from enactment of legislation, and

- Increase funding for fiscal year 2014 to an amount equal to or greater than the amount approved by the House Appropriations Committee this past summer.

"Just as Congress has an obligation to oversee the courts, it likewise has an obligation to provide the judiciary with the resources it needs to carry out its constitutional and statutory duties," Susman wrote.

Read the ABA's full letter here.

Last month, federal lawmakers passed the Continuing Appropriations Act 2014, ending a 17-day government shutdown and restoring some of the judiciary's funds cut under sequestration.

The bill funds the government until Jan. 15 and raises the debt ceiling to Feb. 7.

More than half of the $51 million in extra funds awarded to the judiciary will go to federal defenders. The remaining funds will go to a salaries and expenses account for the federal courts.

The additional funds will bring the judiciary's budget from about $6.65 billion to about $6.7 billion.

But some federal judges have said the $51 million in additional funding is only a start, and that the judiciary will continue to push Congress to undo $350 million in sequestration cuts.

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

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