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Record Number of Cases Sitting in Judicial Limbo

April 29, 2015

The American judicial system is overstressed, underfunded, and underserved. This blog has been covering court backlogs at the local level since 2012, but now the Wall Street Journal has dedicated an article to the massive wait times for a case to be heard at the federal level(the Journal requires a subscription to read the article, but it offers a blog post on the same topic for free).

According to the author of the article, there are more than 330,000 “suits involving Social Security benefits, personal injury, and civil rights” pending as of October 2014. This figure represents a 20 percent increase from 2004, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. What’s perhaps more staggering than the sheer volume of cases is the amount of time many have sat untouched. As the Journal reports, 30,000 of these suits were filed more than three years ago.

A particularly bad place to begin a civil case in federal court is California’s Eastern District. Its filing rate per judge (974 last year spread across just six judges) is double the nationwide average, and 14 percent of suits there have been pending for more than three years. One judge in this district (which encompasses Bakersfield, Sacramento, and Fresno, among other large population centers) notes, “Over the years I’ve received several letters from people indicating, ‘Even if I win this case now, my business has failed because of the delay. How is this justice?’ And the simple answer, which I cannot give them, is this: It is not justice. We know it.”

The blog post accompanying the original article investigates reasons for these dramatic wait times, and concludes that they are due to several factors: “population shifts, politics, and a surge in the number of federal prisoners”–the federal prison population is up 55 percent since 1999. As the Journal’s blogger points out, because the United States Constitution guarantees citizens a right to a “speedy” criminal trial (not to mention appeals, petitions, and prison-related complaints), civil cases often remain idle for years at a time.

When the author of the article cites politics as a reason for the lag, he is referring to the fact that Congress alone has the ability to add, reallocate, or reassign judges. Despite efforts from the Judicial Conference of the United States to convince Congress to add nearly 70 judgeships across the country–including six in the California district mentioned above–the legislature moves very slowly when it comes to judicial confirmation. This has led to many districts taking on “senior judges,” men and women who have retired (or semi-retired) but now carry full or near-full case loads in order to relieve the strain on the courts.

One judicial expert who works for the advocacy group People for the American Way argues, “If every single vacancy was filled by this afternoon that still wouldn’t be enough to get the work done.”

As we wrote nearly three years ago when we reported on underserved New Jersey courts, justice delayed is justice denied. These stresses on the civil justice system continue to threaten one of the three fundamental branches of our government.

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