Politics & Government

California's Central Valley needs more federal judges, Senate told

WASHINGTON -- Central Valley judges need reinforcements now, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill told a Senate panel Wednesday.

The federal judges currently serving in the Fresno and Sacramento courthouses are by some measures the busiest in the nation, and waiting times are among the longest. O'Neill advised Senate Judiciary Committee members that the solution is a bill increasing the number of judges in California and 11 other states.

"There are other judicial districts that are in trouble," said O'Neill, who works in the Fresno federal courthouse. "We happen to be in crisis."

The weighted caseload average, for instance, is higher for federal judges in Fresno and Sacramento than anywhere else in the country. The weighted caseload average measures the judicial burden by assigning different weights to different types of cases, depending on how much time they typically take.

For federal judges nationwide, the average weighted caseload is 471. For judges in Fresno and Sacramento, together known as the Eastern District of California, the weighted caseload average is 1,095.

"That is busy," O'Neill said.

The judgeship bill backed by O'Neill and co-authored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein would add four permanent district court judges and one temporary district court judge to the Eastern District of California. The bill would also add four seats to the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees nine Western states and territories.

Lawmakers, though, have been considering similar judgeship bills since 2003, and University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias noted that the last big bill of its kind was passed in 1990. So far, the legislative efforts have not gained much Capitol Hill traction.

"Congress has repeatedly put off addressing the courts' growing workload," said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the chair of the subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts.

Tobias attributed the unwillingness to add more judges in part to "poisonous partisanship." Lawmakers from parties that don't control the White House are loath to create new judge positions that can be filled by the other party.

The Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican member, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said that he had "significant concern" because the 63 permanent appellate and district judges called for in the latest legislation would cost $75 million in just the first year.

"I'm just telling you, we don't have the money," Sessions said.

Nonetheless, in hopes of building legislative momentum, Whitehouse's panel summoned three trial-level judges to the hearing. O'Neill is currently one of four district court, trial-level judges serving in the Fresno federal courthouse. Two of his colleagues are on senior status, which means they essentially control their own workload.

The Sacramento federal courthouse is currently staffed by seven district judges, two of them on senior status.

Together, the Eastern District of California courthouses received 4,807 new civil cases and 965 new criminal cases last year. O'Neill cited a surge of methamphetamine-related cases, among others, as helping drive the region's workload up.

The median time from case filing to conclusion of a trial in civil cases in the Eastern District of California was 34 months last year. This was longer than most other judicial districts nationwide.

"We need your help," O'Neill told the Senate panel. "We need your consideration."