‘Justice Delayed is Justice Denied’ - Should Federal District & Appeals Courts Have More Judges to Handle Rising Caseloads?
Should Congress add more judgeships to circuit & district courts to address rising caseloads?
by Causes | 7.10.20
What’s the story?
- At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the non-partisan Judicial Conference reiterated its plea for Congress to create additional federal judgeships to deal with an ever growing caseload, which has recently been exacerbated by limitations on court operations associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
- The Judicial Conference is the national policy-making body for the federal court system which consists of 26 active federal judges. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presides over the Conference, which includes the chief judge of all the circuit courts plus judges from various district courts around the country.
- The Judicial Conference’s latest request is for Congress to create five new judgeships in one circuit court (the Ninth), plus 65 new judgeships in 24 district courts, and converting eight existing temporary district court judgeships to permanent status. That’s an increase of 13 district court judgeships from its request submitted in 2018 that went unaddressed.
Why are more judges needed?
- Chief Judge Brian Stacy Miller of the Eastern District of Arkansas, who has been a federal judge since 2008 and chairs a subcommittee on judicial statistics, testified before the committee on behalf of the Judicial Conference about the impact of increasing caseloads:
“The effects of increasing caseloads without a corresponding increase in judges are profound. Increasing caseloads lead to significant delays in the consideration of cases, especially civil cases which may take years to get to trial. Nationally, the average time between filing and trial for a civil case is a little over two years. In many of these overworked courts the average time between filing and trial is much longer, often three or four years. Delays increase expenses for civil litigants and may increase the length of time criminal defendants are held pending trial. Substantial delays lead to lack of respect for the judiciary and the judicial process. The problem is so severe that potential litigants may be avoiding federal court altogether.”
- Christian Adams, the president of the Federal Bar Association, also testified before the committee and emphasized the need for more judgeships:
“The need for additional federal judgeships represents an urgent priority. The authorization of additional judgeships in our federal courts is critical to the assurance of timely and efficient administration of justice. It is note trite to underscore the refrain that “justice delayed is justice denied.””
- This chart from USAFacts shows the number of cases filed annually in federal appeals courts, which have increased from 1,466 in 1990 (the year of the last omnibus judgeships bill) to 1,511 in 2019. The number of cases filed exceeded 1,700 in 10 years since 1990, and topped out at 1,847 in 1995 and 1,840 in 2016:
- The rising caseload is even more pronounced in federal district courts, which have had over 400,000 pending cases each year since 2014. This USAFacts chart shows the number of pending cases has risen from 279,589 in 1990, to 321,597 in 2003, up to 443,042 in 2019:
Could Congress approve more judges?
- Adding judgeships requires Congress to enact legislation establishing the new judgeships. As Miller noted in his testimony, Congress used to consider judgeship bills to address a rising caseload regularly, with bills enacted in 1966, 1970, 1978, and 1984. However, the last comprehensive bill adding appeals & district court judgeships was enacted in 1990, while smaller targeted bills focused on district courts were enacted between 1999 & 2003, so it has been over 15 years since any judgeships were added.
- While there hasn’t yet been a comprehensive bill introduced to address the Judicial Conference’s request in the current Congress there have been several smaller judgeship bills addressing specific circuits & districts.
- Notably, two bills have been introduced to add five judgeships to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is in line with the Conference’s request. That would bring the nation’s largest circuit up to 34 judges before the bills would split it to create a new Twelfth Circuit, thus making the 9th & 12th Circuits more comparable to their peers in terms of geographic size & population served.
- Despite the introduction of several bills to add new judgeships, it’s quite possible that political considerations & partisanship will continue to delay a comprehensive judgeship package even though there is recognition of the problem from both sides of the aisle. That’s because the party in the minority has little incentive to create more judgeships that can be filled by a president & Senate majority of the opposing party, making it difficult to pass bipartisan legislation creating more judgeships.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: karen_neoh via Flickr / Creative Commons)
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