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District Court Vacancies Increase After Filibuster Reform

Three months after Senate Democrats reformed the filibuster rules for executive and judicial nominees, Senate obstruction continues in new forms while courts and litigants continue to pay the price.

February 21, 2014

Despite a change to the Senate fili­buster rule three months ago, the number of district court vacan­cies increased from 75 to 80 — reach­ing the highest vacancy level since March 2011, accord­ing to an updated analysis released by the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Senate elim­in­ated the 60-vote cloture require­ment on exec­ut­ive and judi­cial nomin­ees (except for Supreme Court Justices) in Novem­ber 2013.

The current level of trial court vacan­cies is substan­tially higher than what exis­ted at the equi­val­ent point in Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s second term (60) or Pres­id­ent Bush’s second term (35). Indeed, prior to Obama taking office, the last time trial courts exper­i­enced 80 or more vacan­cies was in 1994, which saw high numbers of vacan­cies due to the creation of 74 new trial court judge­ships in 1990.

Annual Aver­age District Court Vacan­cies 2003–2014

With 80 current outstand­ing district court vacan­cies and 10 more expec­ted before the summer, the Senate needs to dramat­ic­ally increase the pace of confirm­a­tions in order to make a mean­ing­ful dent in the vacancy back­log,” said Alicia Bannon, Coun­sel at the Bren­nan Center for Justice. “The Senate should quit stalling and confirm judi­cial nomin­ees now. The trial courts can no longer wait.”

The Bren­nan Center docu­mented an unusu­ally high level of district court vacan­cies in a 2013 report, Federal Judi­cial Vacan­cies: The Trial Courts, find­ing the aver­age number of district court vacan­cies to be greater than 60 for five straight years, from 2009–2013. That trend contin­ues into 2014 with an aver­age vacancy level of 78 since Janu­ary.

  • See the Trial Court Vacan­cies anaylsis here.
  • Learn more about judi­cial nomin­a­tions here.