In Border States, Judges Face Criminal Caseloads More Than 11 Times The National Average

With judicial nominations stalled by obstructionist Senate Republicans, and immigration and drug prosecutions skyrocketing, federal trial judges in states on the U.S.-Mexico border are facing criminal caseloads as much as 11.5 times the average, according to a new report.

In New Mexico, judges faced an average of 7,020 cases per judge since 2006, compared to Washington, D.C.’s 147. And in Texas, the caseloads throughout the state range from 5,467 to 3,872 per judge. The border states face such onerous caseloads in part due to an influx of immigration and drug prosecutions. The report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University explains:

While apprehensions along the southwest border haven’t grown – indeed they generally have been falling for more than a decade or more – the onslaught of criminal immigration prosecutions that have engulfed federal district courts has occurred as a result of a policy shift to increase criminal prosecutions for illegal entry rather than use civil and administration procedures to remove and sanction individuals found to have illegally entered the U.S.

It is worth noting that these differences in criminal caseloads don’t fully reflect the comparative dockets of these courts. Some courts have much higher civil dockets relative to their criminal dockets. But the report notes that the variance in civil caseloads does not explain the difference. Even accounting for civil cases, for example, New Mexico still has twice the caseload per judgeship of the District of Columbia.

What’s more, onerous criminal caseloads are particularly troublesome, given the dire impact of a mistaken conviction or sentence by an overworked judge, who typically faces mandatory timelines for handling criminal cases. Unfortunately, judges in Texas and other border states have had to turn to shortcuts just to get by. In a 2011 interview with CNN, U.S. District Judge Royal Ferguson explained:

For one thing, you herd everybody into the courtroom and you start sentencing them just running down the row. That’s unacceptable. But if you don’t do that, if you take the normal time it would take to sentence people, your cases just back up to the point where it’s impossible to deal with them. The courts just get completely gridlocked and logjammed and nothing can happen. So at some point, judges have to make decisions, and they often have to make decisions on the border in an assembly-line fashion, which I think we all find unacceptable.

Ferguson’s comments were featured in a March 2011 CNN report on the “dire situation caused by a massive nominee logjam” on the federal courts. There were at the time 94 federal court vacancies. Now, even after the election, there remain 82 vacancies, including in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Among the nominees is Rosemary Márquez, nominated more than a year ago to fill an Arizona seat considered a judicial emergency. Continued Republican intransigence has stalled any movement on nominees like Márquez.

“This is as bad as I’ve seen it,” D.C. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth told CNN. “There’s a war between the legislative branches of government and the judiciary is caught in the middle and we are suffering.” Bills have been introduced in Congress to add additional seats in several of these states and alleviate their caseloads, but even that won’t matter if legislators can’t successfully fill the seats that are empty.