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July 2009

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


Congress Urged to Add Bankruptcy Judgeships as Courts Face Near-Record Case Levels

The federal courts need additional bankruptcy judgeships in the face of near-record case levels to alleviate overcrowded dockets and to assure that the bankruptcy system operates efficiently, Judge Barbara M. G. Lynn (N.D Tex.) told a House subcommittee last month. Lynn is chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Administration of the Bankruptcy System. In June, she appeared before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law in support of the Judicial Conference's 2009 bankruptcy judgeship recommendations.

"Our judicial resources are strained," Lynn said. "And the cost to society of an overburdened bankruptcy system, especially in this economic climate, is enormous." The Judicial Conference recommends 13 additional permanent bankruptcy judgeships in 10 judicial districts, the conversion of 22 existing temporary bankruptcy judgeships to permanent in 15 judicial districts, and the extension of two existing temporary bankruptcy judgeships for five years.

"The need for these judgeships is critical," said Lynn, "with filings increasing to near-record levels and the bankruptcy courts in peril of losing many of their judicial resources. It is time to pass judgeship legislation to alleviate the overcrowded dockets and assure that the bankruptcy system operates efficiently, especially in our current economic circumstances."

There was bipartisan support for additional bankruptcy judgeships from many members of the subcommittee chaired by Representative Stephen Cohen (D-TN). Bankruptcy Judge David S. Kennedy (W.D. Tenn.) testified at the hearing on behalf of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, and attorney Cary D. Ebert appeared on behalf of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. Both Kennedy and Ebert supported the need for new bankruptcy judges. The fourth witness at the hearing, William Jenkins, Jr., Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, Government Accountability Office (GAO), discussed GAO's review and assessment of the case weight formula for bankruptcy courts.

New bankruptcy judgeships were last authorized in 2005 as part of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA). All of those judgeships were temporary. Prior to that, new bankruptcy judgeships were authorized by Congress in 1992.

Case filings have increased steadily since the first year after BAPCPA took effect. In the 12-month period ending March 31, 2008, there were approximately 1.2 million bankruptcy petitions filed—nearly double the number of petitions filed in 2006.

Weighted filings per authorized judgeship also have seen significant increases. From 2006 to 2007, the national average weighted filings per authorized judgeship increased 16 percent, and from 2007 to 2008, the average increased a further 27 percent. As of the end of March 2009, the national average weighted filings per authorized judgeship stood nearly 60 percent higher than the first year following BAPCPA.

It is Judicial Conference policy that, in addition to other judicial duties, a bankruptcy court should have a workload of 1,500 or more annual case-weighted filings per judgeship to justify an additional judgeship. The nature and mix of the court's caseload; historical filing trends; geographic, economic, and demographic factors in the district; use of alternative solutions; and effectiveness of case management efforts also are considered.

"Bankruptcy judgeships are filled only when there is a workload need," Lynn told the subcommittee. "In addition, before recommending judgeship actions, the Conference examines whether courts are using alternative means of maximizing their existing judicial resources."

But some districts, such as the Eastern District of Michigan, are overwhelmed by ever-increasing caseloads, according to Lynn, and have shown a sustained need for additional judgeships. Additional judicial resources have been recommended for the Eastern District of Michigan since 1993.

"We share a common interest in ensuring that the bankruptcy court system has adequate judicial resources to manage its caseloads in a just, economical, and timely manner," Lynn said. "A near-record level of cases is pending in our bankruptcy courts, and the case filings continue to increase. Many of the districts for which additional bankruptcy judgeships are sought have had overwhelming filings for years … Although the Judiciary has developed creative and innovative techniques to fully utilize its existing judgeships, the bankruptcy courts can no longer operate as effectively in some districts because of the heavy workload." She urged the subcommittee to support the Judicial Conference bankruptcy judgeship recommendations.

Read Lynn's complete testimony at www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/2009/TestimonyofJudgeBarbaraLynn.pdf. Complete hearing testimony for all witnesses can be found on the House Judiciary's website at http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/hear_090616.html.