Trials & Litigation

US Courts: Federal litigants face record civil-case backlog due to shortage of judges

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During the past 15 years, the federal prison population has grown by more than 50 percent.

But the federal bench has not, leading to record delays in hearing civil cases as criminal matters are given priority, reports the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.). A backlog of some 330,000 civil cases as of last October represents a 20-percent increase since 2004, according to figures compiled by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts

In the Eastern District of California, which is especially hard-hit, the general population in areas covered by the district has doubled since 1980. But the number of full-time federal judges remains the same–a total of six positions. An average of nearly 975 cases per judge was filed there last year.

Political partisanship has slowed the U.S. Senate process of confirming new federal judges, once they are appointed by the president; however,. even if all current positions were filled, there would still be a shortage of judges, observers say. Congressional approval is needed to create new seats on the bench.

Meanwhile, current judges are becoming discouraged by the working conditions, the Journal reports. Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill, who sits in Fresno, California, in the Central District, says he typically works 12 to 13 hours daily.

“How long people are willing to work under those circumstances is a real question mark,” he tells the newspaper, noting that his own time on the bench is coming to an end. “In less than four years, I am retiring, and there’s no way I’m going senior. Frankly, it’s because this job is no fun anymore.”

Related material:

U.S. Courts: “Judiciary Asks Congress to Invest in Improved Court Operations”

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