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Widespread Shortage of Judges Derails Civil Justice System

September 12, 2012

On July 11, this blog published a post titled “Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied,” which dealt with the shortage of judges (and thus backlog of civil cases) in Union County, New Jersey. Upon further research, it has become painfully clear that this problem is not just plaguing New Jersey, or even just the east coast. In December 2010, the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece sharply criticizing both President Obama and the U.S. Senate for failing to nominate and confirm justices to fill the 18 vacant judgeships (out of 142 total) in the west coast’s 9th Circuit. The authors of that article point out that one such seat had been vacant for almost six years. Even more shocking is that from 1977 to 2003, the average judicial vacancy lasted fewer than 90 days; now the average time before confirmation is 516 days — nearly six times longer.

The status of judicial vacancies on the east coast is no more promising, especially with opponents of the president in the Senate vowing to stall and drag out the confirmation process until the general election this November (this has been common practice on both sides of the aisle, historically speaking).

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, explains that 27 percent of judgeships in Philadelphia’s district are currently unfilled. Compounding problems, in light of Pennsylvania’s already perilous financial situation, Gov. Tom Corbett and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille reached an informal agreement to allow these benches to remain empty so that fewer judges would be on the state’s payroll.

Politicians at the state level seem to realize the severity of the problem. Tobias writes, “Earlier this year, [Senator] Casey said it was ‘imperative’ that the state’s remaining vacancies be filled quickly, and [Senator] Toomey promised to work with him, saying, ‘We need people in these seats soon. I certainly hope we don’t have to wait until after the election.’ Last month, Toomey said he and Casey were continuing ‘to work in a truly bipartisan fashion to fill the remaining federal district vacancies in Pennsylvania.’”

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This lack of funding and staffing is unique to the judicial branch of the U.S. government. We need to recognize that this is a serious problem. When was the last time we, as a country, considered cancelling senatorial elections because the government was not able to pay politicians’ salaries? This is unheard of. Imagine someone proposing to cut the number of presidential advisers in half due to budget constraints. Surely you cannot. The judicial branch is taking hits and making cuts that are totally disproportionate to the two other branches; branches that were meant to be equal in their power and influence. This gets to the heart of our country’s separation of powers and ingenious system of checks and balances.

This shortage of judges has led to a backlog of cases both criminal and civil. And because the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a “speedy trial” (or else charges may be dropped), civil litigants have to wait longer and longer before their cases are heard. In short, justice is not being served to many people who have been wronged through no fault of their own, such as personal injury victims, and who deserve compensation.


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