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Federal Judicial Nominations

Federal judicial vacancies are on the rise and continue to plague our courts. This page contains graphs, statistics, and resources related to the federal judicial nominations process.

Published: February 14, 2014

Since 2009, federal trial courts have exper­i­enced unusu­ally high and sustained levels of judi­cial vacan­cies. Follow­ing years of obstruc­tion, the pace of Senate confirm­a­tion of judi­cial nomin­ees has dramat­ic­ally accel­er­ated since April 2014. Yet a vacancy back­log contin­ues, includ­ing high levels of judi­cial vacan­cies without nomin­ees.

The Bren­nan Center first examined the grow­ing number of federal district court vacan­cies in a July 2013 report, find­ing that these vacan­cies have burdened federal judges with unwork­able case­loads. Addi­tional stud­ies were completed in Novem­ber 2013 and Febru­ary 2014.

Our most recent analysis, published in July 2014, featured inter­views with trial court judges, court admin­is­trat­ors, and prac­ti­tion­ers who docu­mented the harm­ful impact of high vacancy levels on the admin­is­tra­tion of justice, includ­ing case delays and reduced time for judges to spend on indi­vidual cases. 

Without contin­ued atten­tion by the Pres­id­ent and Senate, many federal judge­ships are likely to remain unfilled for the fore­see­able future. The White House and Senate should prior­it­ize identi­fy­ing nomin­ees for unfilled judge­ships and continue their recent progress in confirm­ing qual­i­fied nomin­ees.     

Below is a chart of all federal judi­cial court vacan­cies followed by a break­down of district court vacan­cies.

All Federal Judi­cial Vacan­cies

*As repor­ted by the Admin­is­trat­ive Office of the U.S. Courts

Federal District Court Vacan­cies

While most atten­tion to federal judi­cial vacan­cies has focused on the appel­late courts, our district courts have also exper­i­enced high levels of vacant judge­ships. District courts are the work­horses of the federal judi­cial system, resolv­ing legal disputes, conduct­ing civil and crim­inal trials, and over­see­ing cases from filing to termin­a­tion.

In our most recent analysis, the Bren­nan Center examined 10 districts that currently have judi­cial vacan­cies or that recently had vacan­cies filled. Inter­views with 20 chief judges, court admin­is­trat­ors, and prac­ti­tion­ers suggest that vacan­cies affect the abil­ity of many courts to effect­ively and timely admin­is­ter justice.

The inter­viewees repor­ted four major impacts:

  • Case delays: Delay in resolv­ing motions and hear­ing trials was the most common impact cited in inter­views with judges and court admin­is­trat­ors, with eight districts report­ing delays caused by vacan­cies. Our analysis of court data found that having a single judi­cial vacancy for 12 months was asso­ci­ated, at a stat­ist­ic­ally signi­fic­ant level, with a two percent­age point increase in the percent­age of cases pending for three years or more.

“We don’t neglect the seventh amend­ment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.”

— Chief Judge William Skretny, West­ern District of New York

  • Less time spent on indi­vidual cases: Judges in four districts observed that heav­ier case­loads due to vacan­cies meant they spent less time consid­er­ing indi­vidual cases, rais­ing troub­ling concerns about the qual­ity of justice dispensed.

“Some­times you’d like to be able to spend more time think­ing and writ­ing, or having more hear­ings. We just don’t have time to do that.”

— Chief Judge Anne Conway, Middle District of Flor­ida

  • Admin­is­trat­ive burdens: Vacan­cies mean more than the loss of a judge. Judges and court admin­is­trat­ors in five districts emphas­ized the “trickle-down” effect on judi­cial admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing the loss of law clerks and other admin­is­trat­ive resources and reduced capa­city for the work of judi­cial commit­tees.

    “It’s a trickle-down effect. When you have a vacancy it        affects all parts of your court system.”

— Chief Judge Leonard Davis, East­ern District of Texas

  • Risk of judi­cial burn-out: Vacan­cies mean more work for a district’s remain­ing judges. In eight districts, chief judges and court admin­is­trat­ors raised concerns about judges taking on heavy work­loads in an effort to compensate for vacan­cies, with four specific­ally citing judi­cial burn-out as a cause for concern.

“It’s like an emer­gency room in a hospital. The judges are used to it and people come in and out and get good treat­ment. But the ques­tion is, can you sustain it? Even­tu­ally you burn out.”

— Chief Judge Federico Moreno, South­ern District of Flor­ida


The Need for New Judge­ships

Congress has not passed a compre­hens­ive judge­ship act since 1990, and the last time that any district court judge­ships were created by Congress was in 2002. Nation­wide, 32 out of 94 districts have been recom­men­ded for addi­tional judge­ships by the Judi­cial Confer­ence of the United States, based on the districts’ work­load and self-assess­ment of need. When these recom­men­ded addi­tional judge­ships are added to the number of exist­ing vacan­cies, districts’ “effect­ive vacancy rates” are strik­ing, with 20 districts in 14 states left with vacancy rates of 25 percent or higher, as of July 14, 2014.

Addi­tional Resources

  • Russell Wheeler of the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion published a report in 2013 compar­ing the nomin­a­tions processes of the Obama, Bush, and Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tions. 
  • Judging the Envir­on­ment approaches the federal judi­cial nomin­a­tions process from an envir­on­mental protec­tion perspect­ive.