Trial Courts in Trouble: An Analysis of Judicial Vacancies in Federal District Courts

July 2, 2013

New York, NY – Unusually high judicial vacancy levels coupled with unprecedented workloads are burdening federal district courts as never before, according to a study released today by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Most controversy over judicial vacancies has focused on federal appeals courts, beset by filibusters and congressional inaction. This analysis shows trial courts face similar challenges.

In fact, judicial vacancies have remained uniquely high throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, with annual vacancies averaging significantly higher than those experienced during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Our study shows that for the first time in 20 years, judicial vacancies averaged more than 60 vacant seats for five straight years from 2009-2013, breaking historic patterns and delaying the resolution of critical legal disputes in civil and criminal trials.

 “Our trial courts are in trouble,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “As seats remain unfilled, millions of Americans who rely on district courts are being denied the justice they deserve. District courts can no longer wait. The President and the Senate must find a way to fill these crucial seats.”

Among the study’s key findings:

  • As of July 1, 2013, there were 65 district court vacancies out of a total of 677 judgeships—a 10 percent vacancy rate, with four additional vacancies expected in the next two weeks and 23 nominees pending before the Senate. Contrast that to the 4.4 percent average district court vacancy rate that President George W. Bush experienced during his fifth year in office.
     
  • The average per-judge caseload in 2009-2012 was 13 percent higher than the average for the preceding four years. Had all vacancies been filled between 2009 and 2012, judges would have had an average of 42 fewer pending cases each year.
     
  • Judicial vacancies are particularly harmful in some districts. Analysis shows that judicial emergencies—a designation of districts with an acute need for judges— have been higher in 2010-2012 than at any other point since 2002.

To read the analysis in full, click here.

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