Plaintiffs, defendants find going slow in federal courts

Fresno BeeSeptember 7, 2008 

FRESNO — Federal justice requires considerable patience, as Gary Condit and Baskin-Robbins can now testify.

The ice cream chain and the former San Joaquin Valley congressman have been waiting 11 months for a judge's verdict in a civil lawsuit. Delay may be frustrating. In federal courthouses, it's also commonplace.

Condit and Baskin-Robbins may even be lucky. They're stuck in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, where verdicts come quicker than in California's Central Valley. For a variety of reasons, federal courthouses in Fresno and Sacramento move more slowly than most federal courthouses nationwide.

There are many reasons.

"It's not just the court delaying these cases," noted U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who is based in Fresno. "The parties delay cases as well."

Non-jury civil trials in the Eastern District of California posted a median of 42 months from filing to verdict in 2007, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts reported. This was twice the national median of 21 months.

The median time in federal courts in Arizona, where Condit's case was tried, ran only 27 months for non-jury civil cases.

Eleven percent of the Eastern District's civil cases have lingered for three years or longer, the most recent records show. This, too, exceeded a vast majority of other judicial districts. For instance, only 4.7 percent of the cases in the San Francisco-based Northern District have lasted three years or longer.

The responsibility is shared.

Sometimes, overworked judges are hard-pressed to render a decision. Sometimes, the cases raise incredibly complex issues. Sometimes, prisoners file cases that can drag on. In July, for instance, a Sacramento-based U.S. magistrate oversaw settlement of a case first filed in July 1998 by a state prisoner who had renamed himself Khalifah Saif'ullah.

Saif'ullah claimed Solano State Prison officials discriminated against Muslims by requiring beards to be shaved. A related class-action suit was settled, and the state eventually paid Saif'ullah $4,750 to end his decade-old case, records show.

Sometimes, there are administrative constraints. Fresno-based U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii, for instance, is not currently trying cases because he has taken over as the district's chief judge. And, sometimes, cases bounce around from filing to decision to appeal and back for another decision.

"The bottom line is, it (can be) the nature of the cases because of their complexity," Wanger said.

In 1988, for instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the federal government in U.S. District Court in Sacramento over management of Friant Dam. The environmental group charged that dam operations had destroyed the San Joaquin River's salmon run.

In 2006, the warring parties reached a settlement. They're still not done, though. The multimillion-dollar river restoration bill needed to implement the lawsuit settlement has still not passed Congress.

"The case was amended seven times, which had to be dealt with, and then there was the appellate process ... and all that takes time," noted Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority. Plus, "the federal judges in California are overtaxed as it is."

In fiscal 2007, 4,595 new civil cases were filed in the Eastern District of California. At the end of the fiscal year, in September 2007, 6,429 civil cases were still pending. On top of that, 870 criminal cases were filed.

A minimum of six civil and criminal trials are set for trial every week, Wanger noted, "so there is a physical impossibility in trying the number of cases on our docket."

Lawmakers hope to ease the problem by adding new judges. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has authored a bill to establish 12 new federal district judges in California, including four in the Eastern District.

"America's courts have become strained under massive caseloads, and California's courts are shouldering the brunt of the pain," Feinstein said in May.

In addition, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is seeking 70 judges from among its various district courts to assume 15 prisoner litigation cases each to relieve some of the crushing caseload on federal judges in Fresno and Sacramento.

Still other cases linger through no fault of the lawyers.

Baskin-Robbins' lawsuit against Condit, for instance, seemed a relatively straightforward commercial dispute when it was filed March 23, 2006. The company complained Condit and members of his family had not fulfilled their part of a management agreement.

The case did have some twists, as when Condit's original attorney dropped out and when Baskin-Robbins was frustrated in efforts to obtain information from the Condit family. But in many respects, the trial that started and finished Oct. 23, 2007, seemed like it could be a quick wrap.

There were only three witnesses called, including Condit's son and business partner, Chad. The 50 exhibits presented included mostly routine documents like letters, invoices and photographs.

(Doyle reported from Washington, Ellis from Fresno.)

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