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Judges Help Judges When Courts Face Heavy Caseloads

On most days, Senior Judge Royce C. Lamberth presides over jury trials in criminal and civil cases in his courtroom in Washington, D.C. But sometimes, Lamberth gets a taste of what it’s like to be an appellate judge reviewing decisions by district court judges like himself.

Lamberth takes part in the Judiciary’s intercircuit assignments program, which makes it possible for federal judges in one jurisdiction to temporarily volunteer their services in another where caseloads are high. One of Lamberth’s assignments has been to help Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges with their busy docket.

“Sitting as an appellate judge on the Ninth Circuit has both challenged me and broadened my perspective as a judge,” said Lamberth, who formerly served as chair of the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Intercircuit Assignments.

“In the appellate world, language is everything,” Lamberth said. “The wording of an opinion affects the masses, as the decisions are law for all the district courts to follow within the circuit.”

Intercircuit assignment requests typically are made by the chief judge of a court experiencing high caseloads. They must be approved by the circuit chief, and as required by statute, authorized by the Chief Justice. The Committee on Intercircuit Assignments processes the requests, maintaining rosters of participating volunteer judges.

Senior Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis, of the Eastern District of New York and the current chair of the committee, said, “It’s impossible to predict the personnel needs of each court at all times, as a multiplicity of factors can result in the sudden increase in filings.”

The demand for intercircuit assignments increased by 27 percent in 2017 from the previous year, as many courts juggling heavy caseloads looked for relief. The increase was caused primarily by a large number of judicial vacancies. Other factors contributed, such as natural disasters and extended illnesses that temporarily impacted the availability of judges.

In 2017, 143 judges participated in 223 intercircuit assignments, with senior judges making up almost 60 percent of the volunteers, according to figures from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Senior judges are Article III judges who are eligible to retire, but choose to continue working.

“Senior judges are excellent candidates for assignments, as they often have reduced caseloads and more availability, allowing them to spend anywhere from a few days to a few months at a court without putting much stress on their home court’s docket,” Lamberth said.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals welcomed more than 60 visiting judges for intercircuit assignments in 2017, sitting for a combined total of about 200 days.

“Visiting judges provide an invaluable service to the Ninth Circuit,” said Sandy Andrews, a policy and research analyst who helps coordinate intercircuit assignments in the Ninth Circuit. “Due to a busy docket and a number of vacancies, our court relies on intercircuit assignments to form enough appellate panels to hear cases in a timely manner.”

During the devastating 2017 hurricanes, judges in the Southeast volunteered for intercircuit assignments, to preside over the criminal proceedings of more than 1,000 Puerto Rican detainees who were transferred to correctional facilities in Mississippi and Florida while the island recovered.

“There’s a lot of truth to the saying ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’” said Senior Judge Ronald Lee Gilman, of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, who has done 22 temporary assignments. “While intercircuit assignments aren’t a long-term solution to overloaded dockets, they do afford the public timely access to justice without compromising the quality of the justice received.”

Temporary judicial assignments also serve as a vehicle for the exchange of ideas and practices among judges and expose them to new opportunities.

“In addition to having the opportunity to serve as an appellate judge, I’ve learned a lot about the differences in court-to-court administrative procedures,” Lamberth said. “Many of the courts I’ve visited on assignment have optimized operations to more efficiently move cases through the system and can serve as a model to other courts.”

Gilman said his experience has allowed him to work on interesting appellate cases he wouldn’t have encountered on his own court in Cincinnati. He presided over a case involving a Ponzi scheme in Miami while temporarily assigned to the Eleventh Circuit, and a case involving a cruise ship accident off the coast of California while assigned to the Ninth.

“As soon as I took senior status, I wrote most of the circuits to offer my services, and before long I had several of them scheduling me for a sitting as a visiting judge,” Gilman said.