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June 2009

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Easing Case Congestion with Volunteers

The Judicial Conference Committee on Intercircuit Assignments, consisting of Senior Judge Warren Eginton (D. Conn.), Judge Gerald Bruce Lee (E.D. Va.), and Judge J. Frederick Motz (D. Md.), brings together courts staggering under backlogs with judges willing to take cases. In the first five months of 2009, thanks to courts’ increasing needs and the Committee’s proactive approach, the number of intercircuit assignments has increased 75 percent over the same time period in 2008.

The Committee on Intercircuit Assignments maintains a roster of active and senior judges who are available to take assignments. “Judges from all over the country are willing to get in and clean up a crowded docket,” said Motz, the Committee chair. “They are the heroes of this program.”

Not long ago, Motz began what he calls a Special Work Assistance Taskforce (SWAT) approach to intercircuit assignments, coordinating a large number of judges who each take a trial, a number of pending motions, or a single case for an overburdened court. The judges have access to the case docket through the Case Management/Electronic Case Files System and this, together with the ability to teleconference, means most volunteers don’t have to leave their chambers to help.

Two districts were the immediate beneficiaries: the U.S. District Courts for the Middle District of Florida and the Southern District of New York.

“A vacancy in our Fort Myers division left one district judge to manage a double docket,” Chief Judge Anne Conway (M.D. Fla.) explained. “And a senior judge, with a docket heavier than any of our other judges, was ill and unable to handle cases. Although all the active judges in our district and some senior judges were helping with the two dockets, the motions increased daily.” In addition, one of the problems with the unassigned docket in the Fort Myers division was the large number of old pending motions, which made it difficult to ready the cases for trial. To help, Motz suggested the SWAT approach and Conway accepted the offer.

The call for assistance in October 2008 was answered by 17 district judges from outside the circuit who were approved, as required, by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., to handle pending motions. Additionally, at least four district judges from within the circuit assisted. “Judge Motz even found judges willing to take on complex patent cases,” said Conway.

Months later, the Fort Myers docket is in much better shape. “The SWAT assistance gave litigants and counsel an early resolution of their disputes at no additional cost to the public,” Conway said. “The effort also promoted settlement and narrowed issues for trial.”

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York also readily accepted the SWAT team approach. A new judge there inherited over 150 motions, while civil motions had piled up for another judge handling a lengthy trial. The court also handles a large number of complex multi-district litigation cases, which are unusually time-consuming and added to the backlog.

“Although all of our judges were helping one another, our backlog was growing,” said then-Chief Judge Kimba Wood (S.D. NY). Wood described Motz’s help as invaluable.

Within days of receiving the call from the district, Motz found judges willing to assist with the workload. Among the volunteers were two Massachusetts judges. Judge William G. Young took over 25 motions, handling cases remotely from his Massachusetts chambers or meeting by videoconference with attorneys when necessary. Judge Richard G. Stearns took two complex patent cases. Additionally, Eginton is spending 60 percent of his time assisting the court with its caseload. With their efforts, and the continued efforts of judges in the Southern District of New York, a mountainous backlog was significantly lessened.

In the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Motz offered slightly different assistance as the court begins handling a number of terrorism cases.

“I approached the court and asked if they would like help,” said Motz, “not for the Guantanamo Bay cases—but help with other routine work to free up judges.

The offer has been accepted by Chief Judge Royce Lamberth. “Several judges have volunteered to take pending dispositive motions,” said Lamberth, “and three judges will take other trials to free up our judges to spend more time on Gitmo cases.”

“There are several district courts around the county that have disproportionately burdensome dockets and many judges who are saddled with caseloads much heavier than the norm,” said Motz. “The Intercircuit Assignment program helps these judges, as well as lawyers and litigants in cases stalled due to docket congestion. At the same time, the program proves that the federal Judiciary utilizes all of its resources to the maximum extent.”