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The Federal Bench – Annual Report 2020

Article III judges, bankruptcy judges, and magistrate judges work in federal courts across the country to ensure that caseload demands are met and that justice is delivered in a timely manner to all litigants.

Federal Bench

Federal judges adapted to working remotely across the court system in 2020. Left to right: Judge Staci M. Yandle, of the Southern District of Illinois; Judge James C. Dever III, of the Eastern District of North Carolina; Judge Darrin P. Gayles, of the Southern District of Florida; Chief Judge Timothy M. Burgess, of the District of Alaska; Appellate Judge Robert E. Bacharach, of the 10th Circuit; and Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, of the Northern District of Illinois.

Article III Judgeships

The Judicial Conference of the United States (the Conference) has identified a need for 70 additional Article III judgeships and for the conversion of eight temporary judgeships to permanent status. The Conference in 2019 sent to Congress its request for five new permanent circuit judgeships in the Ninth Circuit and 65 new permanent district judgeships across 24 districts, as well as the conversion of eight temporary judgeships to permanent status. The eight temporary judgeships are in the following districts: Arizona, California-Central, Florida-Southern, Kansas, Missouri-Eastern, New Mexico, North Carolina-Western, and Texas-Eastern. The Conference also noted six districts that are in particular need of emergency relief because of extraordinarily high, sustained workloads: California-Eastern, Delaware, Florida-Southern, Indiana-Southern, New Jersey, and Texas-Western.

In June 2020, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Conference’s request, and a bill was later introduced in the Senate. At the hearing, Judge Brian S. Miller, of the Eastern District of Arkansas, told Congress that the creation of new judgeships had not kept pace with the growth in case filings over three decades, producing “profound” negative effects for many courts across the country.

On Oct. 1, Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the Judicial Understaffing Delays Getting Emergencies Solved Act (JUDGES Act), which would authorize the 65 new district judgeships identified by the Conference. The bill also would allow for the conversion of 10 temporary judgeships to permanent status – the eight requested by the Conference and two additional conversions in the districts of Hawaii and Alabama-Northern. Under the bill, half the judgeships would be authorized in 2021 and the other half in 2025.

Neither the Senate nor the House took further action on a comprehensive judgeship bill by year’s send. A catchall appropriations bill enacted late in 2020 – the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 – included one-year extensions for 10 temporary district judgeships whose authorizations were set to expire in fiscal year 2021. The judgeships are in the following districts: Alabama-Northern, Arizona, California-Central, Florida-Southern, Hawaii, Kansas, Missouri-Eastern, New Mexico, North Carolina-Western, and Texas-Eastern.

Senior Judges

In 2020, nearly 500 senior Article III judges served in the courts of appeals and district courts, providing vital assistance in courts with large, sustained caseloads. The number of cases filed in the courts of appeals and district courts has grown substantially since 1990, the last year that comprehensive judgeship legislation was enacted. Nationwide, during the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2020, senior judges participated in 23 percent of all court of appeals cases that were terminated after oral hearing or submission on briefs. In the district courts, senior judges closed 22 percent of all criminal cases and civil cases that were terminated, and they conducted 26 percent of all completed trials.

Visiting Judges

Visiting judges provide short-term assistance to courts with particularly high caseloads, both between circuits and among court districts within a circuit. The work of visiting judges is facilitated by the Conference’s Committee on Intercircuit Assignments. In fiscal year 2020, the committee recommended, and the Chief Justice approved, 173 intercircuit assignments of Article III judges. The committee also reviewed and concurred with 22 intercircuit assignments of magistrate judges and 19 assignments of bankruptcy judges. Visiting judges provided the following services during the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2020:

Bankruptcy Judges

The Conference conducts surveys of the circuits every two years to gather information about where additional judgeships are needed. The surveys examine each court’s workload and case filing statistics, geographic needs, and other relevant factors that the Conference uses in drafting its requests to Congress for additional judgeships or extensions of temporary judgeships.

Congress has created temporary bankruptcy judgeships to address immediate workload needs when it is reluctant to establish permanent judgeships. Of the 345 total bankruptcy judgeships currently authorized by law, 29 are temporary. Typically, a temporary judgeship lasts five years from the day a judge is sworn into office.

In 2019, the Conference recommended that Congress convert 10 of the Judiciary’s temporary bankruptcy judgeships to permanent status: five in the District of Delaware; two in the District of Puerto Rico; and one each in the districts of Maryland, Michigan-Eastern, and Florida-Southern. In 2020, the Conference recommended that Congress convert an additional four temporary bankruptcy judgeships to permanent status: two in Delaware and one each in the districts of Florida-Middle and Michigan-Eastern.

Congress did not pass legislation to make the judgeships permanent by the time its legislative session ended. It did approve a measure that extended 25 temporary bankruptcy judgeships for five years.

Magistrate Judges

Magistrate judges perform indispensable work for the Judiciary. In 2020, there were about 530 full-time magistrate judges serving the Judiciary. During the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2020, magistrate judges provided these services:

In 2020, the Conference approved the recommendation of its Committee on Magistrate Judges to create six additional full-time magistrate judge positions, one each in the following districts: Indiana-Southern, New Jersey, South Dakota, Texas-Southern, Texas-Western, and Utah.

Article III Vacancies, Nominations, and Confirmations

As of Dec. 31, 2020, there were 45 Article III judgeship vacancies: two in the courts of appeals, 42 in the district courts (32 of which were designated “judicial emergencies” as defined by Conference policy), and one in the Court of International Trade. In addition, four future vacancies were announced (i.e., four judges announced their retirement dates) in the district courts. A total of 23 Article III judgeship nominations were pending: one for the courts of appeals, 21 for the district courts, and one for the Court of International Trade. Also, nominations were pending for three judgeships on the Court of Federal Claims, and there was one nomination pending for a judgeship on a territorial court. During the second session of the 116th Congress (calendar year 2020), 24 circuit judges, 121 district judges, and three Court of International Trade judges were confirmed. In addition, one Supreme Court associate justice, 10 Court of Federal Claims judges, and one territorial court judge were confirmed.

Biannual Meetings of the Judicial Conference

The Judicial Conference of the United States is the national policy-making body for the federal Judiciary. The Chief Justice is the presiding officer. In 2020, the Conference met on March 17 and on Sept. 15. Both meetings were held by teleconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Conference usually meets at the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C.

Reports of the Conference’s meetings are published on the Judiciary’s website.

New Judicial Conference Committee Chairs

Judicial Conference committees make policy recommendations to the Conference on a variety of subjects, such as information technology, probation and pretrial services, space and facilities, security, the budget, defender services, court administration, and rules of practice and procedure. The Chief Justice has sole authority to make committee appointments.

The Executive Committee is the senior executive arm of the Conference, with responsibilities that include acting on behalf of the Conference between sessions on matters requiring emergency action and preparing proposed consent and discussion calendars for meetings of the Conference.

In 2020, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., appointed three new members to the committee: Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer, of the Northern District of Illinois. The Chief Justice appointed Judge Claire V. Eagan, of the Northern District of Oklahoma, to chair the Executive Committee, effective Feb. 12, 2020.

The Chief Justice named eight new chairs of Conference committees and extended the term of one current chair by a year. The appointments took effect on Oct. 1, 2020, as follows:

After Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, of the Eastern District of New York, became the new AO Director in early 2021, the Chief Justice named Judge Brian Stacy Miller, of the Eastern District of Arkansas, to replace Mauskopf as chair of the Judicial Resources Committee, effective Feb. 1, 2021.