New Study: Judicial Vacancies Delay Cases and Create Unmanageable Workloads, Judges Say

July 21, 2014

New York – Despite the recent uptick in judicial nominee confirmations over the last few months, judicial vacancies are causing significant case delays and creating unmanageable workloads for judges in district courts, according to a new Brennan Center for Justice study out today.

In this study, the Brennan Center interviewed more than 20 chief judges, court administrators, and practitioners from 10 districts which either currently or recently had judicial vacancies to get a firsthand account of how vacancies impact our trial courts.

Judges and court administrators in 8 of 10 districts surveyed said that vacancies slowed the court’s ability to resolve motions and try cases, which drove up litigation costs, caused evidence to go stale, in some instances, pressured clients to plead guilty, and made it harder to settle civil cases.

“People depend on our trial courts for fair and swift judgments,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center and author of the report. “But without judges to hear cases, Americans are not getting the justice they deserve. Nearly half of all current judicial vacancies, 24 out of 49, lack nominees, and nine more vacancies are expected before the end of the year. When courts are understaffed, individuals and businesses pay the price. The Senate and the White House need to work together to move nominees forward.”

In one hard hit district, the Eastern District of Texas, practitioners said vacancies created delays that pressured clients to plead guilty in order to avoid lengthy pre-trial detention. Texas attorney G. Talmadge Nix III noted that one client currently in jail awaiting trial will see co-defendants who pleaded guilty finish their prison term before her case is even heard.

Another district affected by long-term vacancies was the Eastern District of California. The district had the third-highest case filings per judgeship in the country in 2013, which, combined with two vacancies since July 2013, created trial delays that Chief Judge Morrison England described as “not sustainable.” “People lose their memory, evidence spoils, people die,” Chief Judge England said. “It’s not a good thing.” Lengthy trial waits can prejudice outcomes and harm business and individuals who rely on courts to resolve disputes.

Judges in four of 10 districts also reported that vacancies and heavy caseloads caused them to spend less time on cases, which “affects the quality of justice that’s being dispensed and the quality of work [judges] can complete,” said Chief Judge Leonard Davis.

Judges also said that vacancies resulted in fewer administrative staff, leaving courts unable to effectively manage dockets. These unmanageable caseloads also contributed to judicial burn-out. In the Western District of Wisconsin, which had one of two judgeships opened for more than five years (from 2008 to May 2014), the number of pending cases in the district jumped from 610 in 2008 to 1,024 in 2013, while the number of filed cases increased by less than 150 cases. The Clerk of Court said the district could not “keep pace.”

Data showed that for every year a single judicial vacancy remains open, there is a 2 percentage point increase in the percentage of cases pending for 3 years or more — an effect that multiplies when districts have multiple vacancies or vacancies that have lasted for lengthy periods.

Although some districts are able to compensate for empty seats with senior (retired) judges, magistrate judges, and visiting judges, these stopgap measures are not long-term solutions and further underscore the need to fill vacant seats. The report recommends that the White House and Senate prioritize identifying nominees and continue the recent progress confirming qualified nominees.

Read the full report here.

For more information or to speak to the author, contact Seth Hoy at seth.hoy@nyu.edu or 646-292-8369.