Main content

The Federal Bench - Annual Report 2016

The Judiciary periodically apprises Congress of the most pressing new judgeship needs, while also maximizing the use of its resources to meet workload demands and ensure that justice is delivered in a timely manner to all litigants.

The members of the Judicial Conference at their September 2016 meeting.

The members of the Judicial Conference at their September 2016 meeting.

Article III Judgeships

At the beginning of the 114th Congress in 2015, the Judicial Conference requested 73 new Article III judgeships, and the conversion of nine existing temporary judgeships to permanent status, for districts with large, sustained workloads.  The Conference urged Congress to establish, as soon as possible, new judgeships in five districts with particularly high caseloads: Arizona, California Eastern, Delaware, Minnesota, and Texas Eastern.

While the comprehensive judgeship request from the Judicial Conference was not introduced as stand-alone legislation, several individual bills were introduced by members of Congress. The 114th Congress failed to pass any of the bills for additional permanent judgeships.

On the issue of extending temporary Article III judgeships, both the Senate and House appropriations bills contained a provision for a one-year extension of nine existing temporary judgeships whose authorizations were set to expire in fiscal year (FY) 2017. But in December 2016, Congress postponed action on FY 2017 appropriations until the incoming administration and the new Congress could set budget priorities. As a result, the federal government, including the Judiciary, are operating under a continuing resolution through April 28, 2017. The resolution did not address the issue of extending temporary Article III judgeships, and the Administrative Office (AO) continued to work to encourage Congress to approve the extensions.

Bankruptcy Judgeships

In January 2015, at the outset of the 114th Congress, the Judicial Conference recommended that Congress establish six new bankruptcy judgeships and convert 16 temporary bankruptcy judgeships to permanent status. All of the affected courts had high numbers of weighted filings per judgeship.  In December 2015, Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) introduced H.R. 4225, the Bankruptcy Judgeship Act of 2015, in the House of Representatives, and the following month, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced a similar bill, S. 2448, in the Senate. Congress did not act on the Conyers-Coons legislation.

At the end of 2016, there were 29 temporary bankruptcy judgeships whose authorizations were set to expire on May 25, 2017.  Any vacancy occurring after that date in a district with a temporary bankruptcy judgeship could not be filled.  Because of the possibility that some of the most critical temporary judgeships could be lost, the Judicial Conference requested a one-year extension of seven judgeships for districts that either had a weighted caseload of more than 1,700 or would reach that threshold if a judgeship were lost.  The request was relayed in March 2016 to the House and Senate appropriations committees.

Both the Senate and House versions of the Judiciary’s FY 2017 appropriations bill included the one-year extensions for judgeships in the following districts: Delaware (2), Florida Southern (2), Michigan Eastern, Puerto Rico, and Virginia Eastern. Final action on the appropriations bills did not occur, and the continuing resolution funding the government through April 28, 2017, did not address the issue. The AO continued efforts to secure congressional approval of the extensions into the new year.

Magistrate Judgeships

Magistrate judges perform indispensable work for the Judiciary. During the 12-month period ending September 30, 2016, magistrate judges nationally conducted 363,017 felony preliminary proceedings, including search warrants, initial appearances, detention hearings, preliminary proceedings, and arraignments.  They also disposed of 16,656 civil cases with consent of parties under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and conducted 22,157 settlement conferences in civil cases.

In 2016, the Judicial Conference approved a recommendation from its Magistrate Judges Committee to convert the part-time magistrate judge position at Williamsport in the Middle District of Pennsylvania to full-time status. As of October 2016, 76 retired magistrate judges were serving on recall.

Visiting and Senior Judges Provide Short-Term Relief

Intercircuit and intracircuit judges provided short-term assistance to courts with overwhelming caseloads.  For the 12-month period ending September 2016:

The work of the judges on intercircuit assignments is facilitated by the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Intercircuit Assignments. The committee recommended, and the Chief Justice approved, 88 intercircuit assignments of 43 Article III judges. The committee also reviewed and concurred with four intercircuit assignments of bankruptcy judges.

Essential to managing caseloads is the work of senior Article III judges. Senior judges are federal judges who qualify for retirement but opt to continue working, essentially providing volunteer service to the courts. The need for their assistance has grown as the number of cases filed in the federal courts has increased since enactment of the last comprehensive judgeship legislation 26 years ago.  In many courts, it is only through the work of senior judges that the courts can manage otherwise overwhelming caseloads. During the 12-month period that ended September 30, 2016:

Automating Magistrate and Bankruptcy Judges' Assignments

The intercircuit assignments of magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges were integrated into the Intercircuit Assignment Database System in 2016, a move that will save the Judiciary time and money. The system automates the intercircuit assignment workflow among geographically diverse users. It enables users to track intercircuit assignments as they move through the process and to search for information with specific criteria, such as judge, date range, case number, and description. The system eliminates inefficiencies associated with manually saving, filing, and distributing documents. Intercircuit assignments for district and appellate court judges were added to the system in earlier years.

Article III Vacancies, Nominations, and Confirmations

As of December 31, 2016, there were 104 Article III judgeship vacancies:  one on the Supreme Court, 17 in the courts of appeals (10 of which were “judicial emergencies” as defined by Judicial Conference policy), 84 in the district courts (31 of which were judicial emergencies), and two in the Court of International Trade.  A total of 54 Article III judgeship nominations were pending:  one for the Supreme Court, seven for the courts of appeals, 44 for the district courts, and two for the Court of International Trade.  Also, there were pending nominations for five of the six judgeship vacancies on the Court of Federal Claims.  During the 114th Congress, 22 Article III judges were confirmed (two for the courts of appeals, 18 for the district courts, and two for the Court of International Trade).

Biannual Meetings of the Judicial Conference

Reports of the Proceedings

The Judicial Conference of the United States is the national policy-making body for the federal court system. The Chief Justice is the presiding officer. In 2016, the Conference met on March 15 and on September 13 at the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.

New Judicial Conference Committee Chairs

Judicial Conference committees advise the Conference on a variety of subjects, such as information technology, probation and pretrial services, space and facilities, security, budget, defender services, court administration, and rules of practice and procedure.

The Chief Justice has sole authority to make committee appointments.

In 2016, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. named Judge Paul Barbadoro (NH) to succeed Chief Judge William B. Traxler, Jr. (Fourth Circuit) as chair of the Executive Committee, effective July 9, 2016. The Executive Committee is the senior executive arm of the Conference, with responsibilities that include acting on the Conference’s behalf between sessions on matters requiring emergency action as authorized by the Chief Justice and preparing proposed consent and discussion calendars for meetings of the Conference.

The Chief Justice named seven other new chairs of Judicial Conference committees, with terms beginning October 1, 2016, and extended terms for the chairs of three committees:

Judge Helen E. Burris (SC-Bankruptcy) succeeded Judge Lawrence L. Piersol (SD) as chair of the Committee on Audits and Administrative Office Accountability;

Judge Karen E. Schreier (SD) succeeded Judge Danny C. Reeves (KY-E) as chair of the Committee on the Administration of the Bankruptcy System;

Chief Judge Ricardo S. Martinez (WA-W) succeeded Judge Irene M. Keeley (WV-N) as chair of the Committee on Criminal Law;

Judge Raymond J. Lohier, Jr. (Second Circuit) succeeded Chief Judge Catherine C. Blake (MD) as chair of the Committee on Defender Services;

Judge David G. Campbell (AZ) succeeded Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton (Sixth Circuit) as chair of the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure;

Judge Neil M. Gorsuch (Tenth Circuit) succeeded Judge Steven M. Colloton (Eighth Circuit) as chair of the Advisory Committee on Appellate Rules;

Judge Susan R. Bolton (AZ) succeeded Judge D. Brooks Smith (Third Circuit) as chair of the Committee on Space and Facilities;

Judge Anthony J. Scirica (Third Circuit) was extended for one year as chair of the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability;

Judge Thomas M. Hardiman (Third Circuit) was extended for one year as chair of the Committee on Information Technology; and

Judge Royce C. Lamberth (DC) was extended for one year as chair of the Committee on Intercircuit Assignments.