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Prisoner Litigation Swamps California Eastern District Court; Ninth Circuit Recruits Other Judges to Help

Prisoner Litigation Swamps California Eastern District Court; Ninth Circuit Recruits Other Judges to Help

by John E. Dannenberg

The U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, has reached a crisis stage due to excessive caseload, resulting principally from prisoner filings. Each of the Eastern District’s judges handled an average of 420 prisoner petitions during fiscal year 2007, up to four times the number in California’s three other federal districts.

To break this legal logjam, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has taken the unprecedented step of asking federal district judges from Montana to Hawai’i to take on prisoner cases from the Eastern District.

With jurisdiction over 19 of California’s 33 state prisons that house approximately 100,000 prisoners, as well as several federal facilities, the Eastern District is a hub for prisoner litigation. Indeed, 2,521 of the 5,480 cases filed in the court in 2007 – some 46 percent – came from prisoners. Such cases often consume excessive court time as they usually involve handwritten pleadings filed by prisoners with little legal acumen.

Presently over 2,500 prisoner cases are pending in the Eastern District, including civil rights lawsuits, death penalty appeals and habeas petitions. At least 60 cases have been on the court’s docket for more than three years. Additionally, hundreds of lifer habeas actions challenging state parole denials bloat the court’s workload.

The Eastern District currently assigns 1,200 cases per judge, including federal criminal prosecutions, immigration cases and civil lawsuits. The resultant delays in federal criminal trials, in turn, adversely impact the local criminal justice system because many federal pre-trial detainees are housed at the already-overcrowded Fresno County Jail.

“Judges bear the burden of this heavy caseload, but it is the citizens of the Eastern District who must suffer the delayed administration of justice,” stated Eastern District Chief Judge Anthony Ishii.

Congress has added only one temporary judge to the Eastern District court since 1990 – a position that expired in 2004 – even though the number of prisoner filings has skyrocketed. Over the same period of time, California’s three other federal district courts received 13 new judgeships. Although a bill has been introduced in Congress to add four additional judges to the Eastern District (SB 2774), the legislation remains pending in the Senate with no action taken since last July.

On July 29, 2008, the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit announced plans to assist the Eastern District court with its “crushing influx of cases.” The Council’s solution was to farm out excess caseload to other districts within the Ninth Circuit. Accordingly, some California prisoners may soon find their cases being heard by judges in such remote outposts as Guam, the Mariana Islands, Alaska and Hawai’i, as well as in six other western states. The Council said it would also “promote mediation and other means” to resolve prisoners’ lawsuits.

Judge Ishii called the Ninth Circuit’s solution helpful, “at least in the short term.” But, he said, “the bottom line is we need more judges.”

Sources: Fresno Bee, National Law Journal,,

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