Commentary: California, Congress and comprehensive judgeship legislation

This week, the United States Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on Senate Bill 1653 to authorize the establishment of 63 new appeals and trial court judgeships.

Congress last enacted a thorough judgeships statute in 1990, and federal court dockets — especially in California — have dramatically increased since then. Thus, legislators must expeditiously pass the measure, so that the federal courts may promptly, economically and fairly resolve mounting caseloads.

Congress has authorized 179 appellate and 678 district judgeships for the federal court system. Since 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed comprehensive legislation, the magnitude and complexity of federal civil and criminal dockets have grown substantially. Increasing cases have placed significant pressure on court resources, while the filings have complicated the attempts of counsel and litigants, who must compete for scarce judicial resources. More complex and rising criminal litigation produces significant backlogs: certain judges hold no civil trials and many parties wait years for those trials. Growing appeals and numerous vacancies even required the Ninth Circuit to delay 600 oral arguments during 1997.

In March, these considerations led the Judicial Conference of the United States to suggest that Congress approve 63 new judgeships. The policy-making arm of the federal court bases these recommendations on conservative estimates of judicial case and work loads.

In early September, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, with 17 sponsors and cosponsors, all of whom are Democrats, introduced Senate Bill 1653. The measure would authorize the creation of 12 new appellate and 51 additional district court judgeships across the country, although numerous judgeships will be concentrated in the West. The bill authorizes five new judgeships for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and four each for the Northern, Eastern and Central Districts of California. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cal.), a senior Judiciary Committee member, recently observed that Eastern District Judges are presently handling caseloads that exceed 1000, even though the Conference "recommends that Congress create a new judgeship anytime a district reaches a caseload of 430 cases per judge." Eastern District Judge Lawrence O’Neill will testify about the burden imposed on the court at the hearing.

At the hearing, Judiciary Committee members are expected to assess the necessity for more judgeships as a general matter and for them in specific circuits and districts. The Conference suggestions are premised on conservative predictions of work and case loads; however, those yardsticks can defy accurate prognostication because events overtake the estimates. For instance, the Ninth Circuit is still addressing an immigration law change instituted by the George W. Bush Administration that flooded the tribunal with several thousand more cases annually. The worst economic conditions since the Great Depression have similarly inundated the federal courts with thousands of unforeseeable financial cases.

For many senators, growing dockets may not justify the establishment of more judgeships. Recent calculations showed that each new judgeship costs approximately one million dollars. Numerous Republican senators will concomitantly be reluctant for political reasons to create additional judgeships that Democratic President Barack Obama can fill. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Minority Leader, has maintained that the bill, if enacted, should only take effect four years after its passage.

Lawmakers have often deferred to the Judicial Conference's expertise on the necessity for more judgeships, yet political considerations, especially divided government, have precluded the adoption of comprehensive legislation since 1990.

At this week's Judiciary Committee hearing, senators should fully and closely review whether expanding caseloads necessitate the authorization of more judgeships generally and for individual tribunals, particularly the California federal courts, Should dockets mandate additional judges, Congress ought to promptly enact a statute.


Carl Tobias is the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law

Related stories from McClatchy DC