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‘Astronomically high caseloads’ in five districts should spur quick action by Congress, ABA says

Posted Oct 30, 2013 9:22 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The ABA is backing additional federal judgeships and increased court funding in a letter sent to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The letter (PDF) acknowledges controversy over a pending bill to create additional judgeships, but says Congress should work to resolve the impasse. In the meantime, the letter says, Congress should move quickly to create new judgeships in federal districts singled out by the U.S. Judicial Conference as needing 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.

“The astronomically high caseloads under which they struggle are indisputable—and indefensible,” says the letter, which is signed by Thomas Susman, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office.

The letter also says Congress should convert eight temporary judgeships to permanent judgeships, or should at least extend their temporary status for 10 years or more.

Federal caseloads “have steadily and steeply increased” since the last comprehensive judgeship bill passed in 1990, Susman says in the letter. The reason for the higher workload, he says, is largely due to congressional expansion of federal court jurisdiction and policies calling for tougher law enforcement in the areas of drugs and immigration.

But Congress authorized only 34 new district court judgeships in this time period, the letter says. “Consequently, over the past 23 years, district courts have experienced a 39 percent increase in filings, but only a 4 percent increase in judgeships. Even more sobering, the number of appellate court judges has not changed, despite a 34 percent increase in filings since 1991.”

The letter says that budget cuts mandated by sequestration have compounded the consequences of the judge shortage. “When making budgeting decisions, Congress should take into consideration that the federal judiciary is essential to preserving constitutional democracy and freedom, and that waiting to restore funds until the erosion in the quality of justice becomes a fait accompli is not a viable national option,” the letter says.

A pending bill based on recommendations by the U.S. Judicial Conference calls for five new permanent judgeships and one temporary judgeship for the courts of appeals, and 65 new permanent judgeships and 20 temporary judgeships for the district courts. It also seeks to covert eight temporary district court judgeships to permanent status.

The ABA says it is aware that some members of Congress have questioned the method used by the Judicial Conference to evaluate caseloads when recommending new judgeships. The letter urges collaboration between Congress, the Judicial Conference and the Government Accounting Office, which has expressed concerns about the methodology concerning case weighting, to resolve the impasse.

The letter was sent to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who held a hearing Tuesday called "Are Judges Always the Answer?"

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