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Federal Judicial Vacancies: The Trial Courts

Unusu­ally high judi­cial vacancy levels coupled with unpre­ced­en­ted work­loads are burden­ing federal district courts like never before. 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. As seats remain unfilled, millions of Amer­ic­ans who rely on district courts are being denied the justice they deserve. The Pres­id­ent and the Senate must find a way to fill these crucial seats.

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Recent public atten­tion on federal judi­cial vacan­cies has largely focused on the appel­late courts. Yet, since 2009, the slow pace of nomin­at­ing and confirm­ing judges has also precip­it­ated a crisis in the district courts — the trial level courts that resolve the vast major­ity of federal cases. As of July 1, 2013, there were 65 vacan­cies in the district courts out of a total of 677 judge­ships, creat­ing a vacancy rate of almost 10 percent. Only 23 nomin­ees are currently pending before the Senate, while 18 district court judges have been confirmed since the start of 2013. The Admin­is­trat­ive Office of the United States Courts anti­cip­ates that four addi­tional vacan­cies will open by July 15, 2013, followed by seven more vacan­cies by Janu­ary 2014.

The high number of vacant judge­ships limits the capa­city of district courts to dispense justice and affects the millions of Amer­ic­ans who rely on district courts to resolve lawsuits and protect their rights. 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. These courts touch the lives of every­one from the small busi­ness owner in a contract dispute, to the family targeted by consumer fraud, to the artist protect­ing her copy­right from infringe­ment. When district courts are not func­tion­ing effi­ciently, it rever­ber­ates through­out our entire judi­cial system.

This analysis exam­ines data on district court vacan­cies and judi­cial work­loads since 1992. Its find­ings suggest that judi­cial vacancy levels are suffi­ciently high that it is affect­ing the func­tion­ing of our courts.

  • Break­ing with histor­ical patterns, district court vacan­cies have remained high through­out Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency. District courts typic­ally see brief peaks in vacan­cies after a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, followed by a sharp decline in subsequent years. Yet, during the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, after district court vacan­cies spiked in 2009 they never returned to their previ­ous level and, in fact, have grown further. For the first time since 1992, the aver­age number of district court vacan­cies has been greater than 60 for five straight years, from 2009–2013.
     
  • Together, high vacancy levels and heavy case­loads are leav­ing sitting judges with unpre­ced­en­ted work­loads. Count­ing both full-time active judges and part-time senior judges, the number of pending cases per sitting judge reached an all-time high in 2009 and was higher in 2012 than at any point from 1992–2007.

     

  •  Vacan­cies are hurt­ing districts with the greatest needs. Judi­cial emer­gen­cies, a meas­ure by the Admin­is­trat­ive Office of the United States Courts of vacan­cies in districts with the most acute need for judges, have been higher in 2010–2012 than at any other point since 2002 (the last year for which compar­able data is avail­able).

These find­ings demon­strate the urgent need for the Pres­id­ent and Senate to act to fill district court vacan­cies. Indeed, our find­ings suggest that to fully address the increas­ing district court work­load, more judge­ships are required — further high­light­ing the import­ance of filling vacant seats now.