Thanks to Senate Republican intransigence and general congressional dysfunction, the federal judicial branch has been persistently understaffed since President Obama took office, with a judicial vacancy rate that has hovered at an alarmingly high ten percent. But even this rate belies the real scope of the problem. Congressional intransigence has also meant that no bills have been passed to add new federal judgeships, in the longest drought on new judicial seats in modern history, according to statistics from a new Brennan for Justice Center Report:
If new judicial seats had been created as needed, the vacancy rate would be even higher and would better represent the full scope of the demand for judges. The federal courts are playing an increasingly key role in many of the major political battles of our time, in addition to resolving everyday disputes and managing exploding drug and immigration dockets.
With less judges sitting on the bench, each judge has faced record-high caseloads over the last several years, meaning litigants in federal courts have waited an average of more than two years in civil cases. In criminal cases, the consequences can be even more dire. Statutory requirements about what constitutes a speedy trial require that these cases heard within certain time periods, meaning judges have resorted to “assembly-line sentencing” in jurisdictions with some of the most pressing caseloads, thanks largely to onerous drug and immigration caseloads in border jurisdictions. In the Western District of Texas, which would have gotten two new judgeships under the bipartisan Emergency Judicial Relief Act of 2011, Judge Royal Furgeson lamented:
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 log-jammed 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.
The Emergency Relief Act never passed, and the Western District of Texas has had enough trouble even getting nominees confirmed to emergency vacancies. Now, there is another chance to add these judgeships. The comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate contains not just provisions to add a slew of much-needed immigration judges. It would also add eight new federal district court judges for California, Arizona and Texas, and several other temporary district court judgeships that would become permanent, according to the National Law Journal. Even if a House bill incorporated these measures, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking minority member on the Senate Judiciary Committee who wants to contract the size of the judicial branch for political gain, is pushing his own amendment to remove these judgeships.