‘In the eye of a hurricane’: Third judge could reduce Idaho’s long delays before trial

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, speaks during a news conference on immigration Jan. 10, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, speaks during a news conference on immigration Jan. 10, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Idaho plaintiffs and defendants who routinely wait years for a civil trial could get their cases heard more quickly, thanks to a bill making its way through Congress.

The bill would add 52 federal district court judges around the country, including a third judge in Idaho’s federal court system, which currently has a backlog of civil cases. Idaho was the nation’s fastest-growing state by percentage between July 2016 and July 2017, according to the Census Bureau, but has had just two judgeships since 1954, causing lengthy delays in civil court proceedings.

The House could consider the bill when it returns in mid-November. Its Senate prospects are uncertain.

Between June 2017 and June 2018, the median wait from filing to the final outcome in Idaho civil cases — which differ from criminal cases in that they generally involve legal disputes between individuals, and usually result in fines rather than jail time — was 14.2 months, according to the U.S. Courts administrative office.

Besides Guam, that’s longer than any other district court in the Ninth Circuit, which encompasses federal courts in the western United States.

“You’re looking at the median time, so you easily have cases that are going to go to two years or three years,” said Stephen Kenyon, Idaho’s federal clerk of the courts. “The uncertainty that’s hanging over your head while this is pending is very stressful.”

Defendants, for instance, might be waiting to learn if they have to pay a fine of $75,000 or more, he said.

Besides Idaho, North Dakota and Vermont are the only states with two federal district court judges, U.S. Courts data show.

Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, voted for the bill, the Judiciary ROOM Act of 2018, when it was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in September.

“As a young lawyer, I worked in the Idaho federal court system (as) a law clerk,” Labrador said. “I saw the frustration, the heartache for victims of crimes. I saw the delays of defendants in some cases, the uncertainty and economic loss.”

The Judicial Conference of the United States declared a judicial emergency in Idaho in 2015, when one of the state’s two federal judges, Edward Lodge, took on senior status and a reduced caseload, leaving B. Lynn Winmill as the lone full-time judge until David Nye was confirmed in 2017.

The immediate emergency was resolved with Nye’s appointment, but in a survey of judgeship needs for 2019 written by Winmill, he said he was ready to reduce his caseload, and noted that Lodge, who is 84, could retire soon.

“Our situation is comparable to being in the eye of a hurricane,” Winmill wrote. “It is highly likely that we will again be in a judicial emergency within the next few years.”

Dozens of judges from outside Idaho have been brought in from other states, Labrador said, but they usually preside over one case before leaving. Kenyon said outside judges also make trials longer and more expensive, because lawyers have to file various motions to get a sense of how the judges will rule.

Kenyon said the addition of a third federal judge would only impact civil courts, because the Speedy Trial Act sets limits on how long criminal cases can dawdle before being brought to trial.

There’s one big caveat to the bill: Idaho’s new judge would not be added until 2021.

Labrador said the delayed timeline was the result of a deal made with judiciary committee Democrats, who balked at the prospect of adding 52 judges nominated by President Donald Trump. If Trump loses his re-election campaign in 2020, a Democratic president could get to nominate the new judges.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, proposed the 2021 start date, and said his rationale for the delay was that Merrick Garland, whom former President Barack Obama nominated to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court, didn’t get a hearing or a vote during an election year.

“I think we should have just gone through with it now,” Labrador said. “But I’m OK with the compromise.”

The ROOM Act includes other changes that have drawn criticism, including provisions about a code of conduct for judges, medical examinations for judges and video streaming in court.

A handful of civil rights and judiciary groups have also taken aim at the legislation and three other judiciary-related bills.

“We strongly urge the committee not to proceed with this bill before, at a minimum, properly examining the bill’s vast array of issues in an open and public hearing,” the opponents wrote in a group letter. “These four bills would make vast changes to the federal judiciary and in most cases, would make it more difficult for Americans to enforce their legal rights.”

Kellen Browning, 202-383-6102, @kellen_browning