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June 2002

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


Judicial Conference Urges Action on Quiet Crisis of Too Few Judgeships

Noting that the spotlight has been focused on judicial vacancies rather than on creating new judgeships, the federal Judiciary has written to congressional leaders, urging them to introduce and pass omnibus judgeship legislation for the first time in more than 11 years.

The Conference's judgeship recommendations were sent to the Hill in the first session of the 107th Congress, but legislation was never introduced.

"It is time for Congress," Administrative Office Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham wrote on behalf of the Conference, "to address this problem in a meaningful way."

Filings in the courts of appeals have increased by 39 percent since 1990. Criminal and civil filings nationwide have increased 22 percent over the same period. The last omnibus judgeship bill was enacted in December 1990. No new court of appeals judgeships have been created in nearly 12 years, and the creation of a handful of district court judgeships in 1999 and 2000 was described as a partial remedy, "akin to applying a Band-Aid to a hemorrhage."

"While it certainly is the prerogative of Congress to add to the jurisdiction of the federal courts—which it has done increasingly in recent years— it also is fair to expect," Mecham wrote, "that Congress will provide the necessary judicial resources to meet these new responsibilities."

The draft bill would add a total of 54 judgeships: six permanent and four temporary judgeships in the courts of appeals, and 23 permanent and 21 temporary judgeships in the district courts.

Mecham acknowledged that judicial vacancies have drawn press attention. Yet, he points out, the need for new judgeships is an equally important problem plaguing federal courts.

"Throughout our nation, there are appellate and district courts that would be in dire need of relief even if all existing vacancies were filled," Mecham wrote. "Yeomen work by senior judges and active utilization of visiting judges has kept the federal court system afloat amid a growing flood of litigation, but only Congress can provide long-term relief."

As examples, Mecham cited the First and Second Circuit Courts of Appeals and the Districts of Arizona, Southern California, New Mexico and Western North Carolina. None has existing vacancies, but all qualify for new judgeships based on the generally accepted caseload standards.

"If litigants in these six courts are experiencing delay, it is not because of the heated and highly publicized debate over the filling of vacancies," Mecham wrote, "rather it is due to the quiet crisis of too few judgeships."

Some new district court judgeships are included in the Department of Justice Authorization bill, S. 1319, and as one avenue of relief, Congress is urged by the Conference to add circuit and district judgeships to the bill and promptly pass it. As a first step, however, the Conference requests that Congress introduce legislation with the Conference's recommended judgeships.

The Conference's letter to Congress is available at www.uscourts.gov under Newsroom.