Main content

The Federal Bench – Annual Report 2017

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.

Judicial Conference group photo from the September 2017 meeting

The members of the Judicial Conference at their September 2017 meeting.

Article III Judgeships

At its March 2017 meeting, the Judicial Conference approved recommendations from its Judicial Resources Committee for additional judgeships and the conversion of temporary judgeships to permanent status for districts with large, sustained workloads. The recommendations called for five new permanent circuit judgeships, 52 new permanent district judgeships, and the conversion of eight temporary district judgeships to permanent status. No comprehensive legislation was introduced in the 115th Congress incorporating the Conference’s recommendations, although district judgeship bills were introduced by individual lawmakers. In addition, an immigration bill was introduced recommending new judgeships in districts in Arizona, California, and Texas. Bills were introduced in 2017 regarding the division of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which contained provisions for additional circuit judgeships.

In May, the President signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017, which included a one-year extension of temporary judgeships in the following districts: Alabama Northern, Arizona, California Central, Florida Southern, Kansas, Missouri Eastern, New Mexico, North Carolina Western, and Texas Eastern. The lapse dates for these temporary judgeships are in 2018, meaning the first vacancy occurring after the lapse date cannot be filled.

Bankruptcy Judgeships

On October 26, 2017, the President signed H.R. 2266, the Bankruptcy Judgeship Act of 2017, which provided for four new temporary judgeships and extended 14 existing temporary bankruptcy judgeships for an additional five years. The measure was paired with the $36.5 billion Disaster Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

The new judgeships are in the District of Delaware (2), the Middle District of Florida (1), and the Eastern District of Michigan (1). Temporary judgeships extended to October 26, 2022, are in the following districts: Delaware (5); Florida Southern (2); Maryland (1); Michigan Eastern (1); Nevada (1); North Carolina Eastern (1); Puerto Rico (2); and Virginia Eastern (1).

The Judiciary supported the legislation, although it had originally requested permanent, not temporary, judgeships. At its March 2017 meeting, the Judicial Conference recommended the creation of four permanent judgeships and the conversion of 14 temporary bankruptcy judgeships to permanent status, based on the workloads in the respective courts. Congress last authorized permanent bankruptcy judgeships in 1992.

Magistrate Judgeships

Magistrate judges handle a variety of important responsibilities for the federal Judiciary. During the 12-month period ending September 30, 2017, magistrate judges nationally conducted 380,269 felony preliminary examinations, including search warrants, initial appearances, detention hearings, preliminary proceedings, and arraignments. They disposed of Class A misdemeanor and petty cases involving 76,345 defendants and of 17,059 civil cases with consent of parties under 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and they conducted 21,239 settlement conferences in civil cases.

In 2017, the Judicial Conference approved recommendations from its Magistrate Judges Committee to authorize four additional full-time magistrate judges – one each in the districts of Puerto Rico (San Juan), Texas Southern (McAllen), Georgia Northern (Atlanta), and South Dakota (Rapid City). The committee recommended that the Conference designate the proposed new positions for accelerated funding, effective April 1, 2018. The committee also approved a request from the California Northern District to fill two magistrate judge position vacancies, one each in San Jose and San Francisco.

Also in 2017, the committee approved filling 18 full-time magistrate judge vacancies in 12 district courts. As of October 2017, 75 retired magistrate judges were serving on recall.

Visiting and Senior Judges Provide Relief

Visiting intercircuit and intracircuit judges provide short-term assistance to courts with particularly high caseloads. The work of the judges on intercircuit assignments is facilitated by the Judicial Conference’s Committee on Intercircuit Assignments. In fiscal year 2017, the committee recommended, and the Chief Justice approved, 223 intercircuit assignments of Article III judges, up 27 percent from 2016. The committee also reviewed and concurred with four intercircuit assignments of bankruptcy judges. Visiting judges provided the following services:

Also 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. (Senior judges are generally entitled to retirement compensation equal to the full salary of their judicial offices.) The need for their assistance has grown as caseloads have increased. The number of cases filed in the courts of appeals and district courts has grown by approximately 40 percent since 1990, the last time comprehensive judgeship legislation was enacted. 

More than 500 senior Article III judges serve in the courts of appeals and district courts, providing vital assistance. During the 12-month period that ended September 30, 2017:

Article III Vacancies, Nominations, and Confirmations

As of December 31, 2017, there were 139 Article III judgeship vacancies: 15 in the courts of appeals (10 of which were “judicial emergencies” as defined by Judicial Conference policy), 122 in the district courts (55 of which were judicial emergencies), and two in the Court of International Trade. A total of 50 Article III judgeship nominations were pending:  seven for the courts of appeals and 43 for the district courts. Also, there were pending nominations for three of the six judgeship vacancies on the Court of Federal Claims. During the first session of the 115th Congress, one Supreme Court associate justice, 12 circuit judges, and six district judges were confirmed.

Biannual Meetings of the Judicial Conference

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 2017, the Conference met on March 14 and on September 12 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 of the Supreme Court has sole authority to make committee appointments.

In 2017, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. named Chief Judge Merrick B. Garland, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to succeed Judge Paul Barbadoro, of the District of New Hampshire, as chair of the Executive Committee, effective October 1, 2017. The Chief Justice also named Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, as a new member of the committee. 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 three new chairs of Judicial Conference committees: