Now that the government shutdown is over, it is time to focus on other important issues where government dysfunction has prevented Congress from fulfilling its constitutional duties. Chief among these is the Senate’s ongoing failure to move forward on confirming judicial nominees.
Over the last six years, the slow pace of nominating and confirming judges had led to historically high and sustained levels of judicial vacancies in the district courts. Court of Appeals nominations have also suffered major delays, a trend that began during President Bush’s first term. In addition, Congress has not made a major expansion of the court since 1990, though such expansions were commonplace in the decades prior.
The Senate’s failure to move forward on judicial nominations – and Congress’s failure to act on bills to increase the total number of judgeships – is particularly striking in the district courts, which have faced unprecedented workloads in recent years. The strain this causes is evidenced by the median time to go from filing to the conclusion of trial in criminal cases, which has steadily trended upward since 1990.The Founding Fathers considered a speedy trial so important that they guaranteed criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial in the Sixth Amendment. Increased trial times can lead to stale evidence and disappearing witnesses, harming the quality of justice courts can mete out and putting victims and the public at risk that the guilty will go free. At the same time, the innocent accused must longer endure the anxiety of serious accusations, oftentimes while languishing in jail.
Ordinary citizens and businesses involved in civil litigation are also harmed by the delays caused by judicial vacancies. When a dispute lies dormant, contractual terms can remain unenforced, bills can go unpaid, and both sides of a dispute can lack the certainty needed to make plans and structure their activities.
Congress is also letting courts down on the budget side. Federal courts around the country have been hammered by sequestration of 5 percent, which follows several years of flat funding. As a result, more than 1,800 employees have been let go, bringing staffing levels to those not seen since 1999. The situation has become so bad that 87 out of 94 chief district judges joined in a letter to Congress to outline the impact of sequestration and request additional funding.
As the burden on courts increases and funding decreases, the inevitable result is increased case length and diminished justice. As Americans we must work to protect the courts and the justice they give.