Federal Criminal Caseload Grew 70 Percent In The Last Decade, But The Judicial Vacancy Crisis Continues

From nearly the first day the President Obama too office, Senate Republicans waged war against his judicial nominees. Indeed, judicial confirmations are down 30 percent from the rate under Obama’s two predecessors. Yet, as the Wall Street Journal reports, these roadblocks come at the worst possible time. While filibusters and delays kill new judicial confirmations, the federal courts’ caseload is exploding:

Over the past three decades, the U.S. has steadily added to the federal rule book through new criminal statutes and regulations that carry criminal penalties. Combined with beefed-up enforcement, that has led to a 70% jump in the number of pending federal criminal cases in the past decade—to over 76,000, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.

Civil litigation, which accounts for over three quarters of federal court cases, is getting squeezed the most. In 2007, fewer than 7% of civil cases were more than three years old. By last year, that percentage more than doubled, with nearly 45,000 cases in a holding pattern. . . .

Exacerbating the problem are vacancies on the federal bench. Despite the surge in case loads, the number of authorized federal judgeships has risen just 4% since 1990. Of the 677 district court judgeships currently authorized, about 9.5% are vacant.

Indeed, the caseload crisis is so severe that it is actually starting to impact wealthy and well-connected corporations — Google and Oracle have waited two years for a trial on an intellectual property dispute with no end in sight. The real losers from this crisis, however, are too often people who are far less capable of waiting out the financial burden of justice denied:

For two and a half years, Amy Bullock has been waiting for her day in court seeking damages for the death of her husband in a 2006 truck accident. Her suit was filed in Denver federal court two years later against Daimler Trucks North America LLC, formerly Freightliner LLC.

It has been postponed twice, once in November 2010, about two weeks before the trial was supposed to start, and again this October to make way for a firearms case.

All Americans depend on the courts to ensure that the law is applied fairly and swiftly. There is no excuse for the Senate GOP’s decision to hobble the judiciary’s ability to meet this need.