Federal Court Caseloads Threaten Constitutional Protections
by Matt Clarke
Civil and criminal case filings in federal courts have grown dramatically over the past two decades, but at the same time the number of judges available to hear them has barely increased according to a report by researchers at Syracuse University. As a result, the study concluded, if Congress fails to act to solve the problem, large caseloads threaten to jeopardize Constitutional protections of equal justice under the law and the right to a speedy trial.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University released a report on October 23, 2014 which found that over the past 20 years, from 1993 to 2013, the growth in the number of federal court filings has slowed the judicial process to a point where it now takes nearly two-thirds longer for civil cases to go to trial.
“For civil matters, the substantially higher workloads and increased processing times have major economic and social consequences,” the study noted. “This is because the federal courts frequently serve as the essential referee in resolving a large number of important economic and social conflicts.”
According to TRAC, “The legal struggles here involve a wide range of filers, from giant corporations and mom-and-pop businesses trying to resolve their disputes, to public interest groups pressing the government to act on important public issues, to civil rights organizations fighting for a more just society.”
Civil cases can involve government officials on both sides of litigation: “In some circumstances, the government is the plaintiff when it uses its civil authority for many different purposes, whether enforcing environmental laws against polluters or cracking down on fraudulent drug manufacturers. The federal government also can be the defendant, for example when a private party feels the government is improperly using its powers.”
Researchers determined that the time required for criminal cases to go to trial had also lengthened, but not as much – increasing by 16% in 2013 compared to 1993.
“Although this change is comparatively small, the damage to the broad goal of equal justice before the law that is guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution is nevertheless vitally important,” the report stressed.
The researchers who authored the TRAC study compiled “comprehensive caseload information for all active and senior district court judges who have handled more than 50 cases in the past year” – 950 judges in total.
After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that Congress must take the blame for increased pressure placed on the federal courts by burgeoning caseloads. The report pointed out that requests by the judiciary for more federal judges have gone unanswered, while political squabbling and partisanship has delayed the filling of vacant positions.
“Court administrators have made repeated requests to Congress for funds to increase the number of federal judgeships,” the report said. “The imbalance between the increasing flow of matters presented to the courts and the number of working judges and staff has also been a concern of Chief Justice John Roberts for many years. In his year-end report for 2013, Judge Roberts said that the ‘budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts.’”
Researchers determined that the number of authorized judgeships across the nation has actually declined, from 680 in 2003 to 677 in 2013.
“Those numbers understate the problem as Congressional inaction on disputed nominations, along with other factors, means that the actual number of full-time judges is less than the count of authorized judgeships,” the report noted. Although 677 judgeships remained authorized in 2013, the number of full-time judges fell to only 612, according to TRAC’s analysis of the U.S. District Court data.
Fewer judges means that criminal cases must take precedence in order to maintain the Constitutional right of defendants to a speedy trial, but researchers said that emphasis comes at the expense of complicated civil cases.
“While Constitutional guarantees of a speedy trial mean that judges have understandably focused on minimizing the increases in criminal matters, the slowing of the ability of the courts to resolve complex civil litigation has far reaching economic and social consequences.”
The TRAC analysis revealed that in criminal cases, the length of time from when a defendant is charged with a felony to the final disposition of the case increased from 6.3 months in 1993 to around 7.3 months in 2013. But in civil cases, a lawsuit that once took 16 months from start to finish in 1993 now takes more than 26 months, an increase of 63%.
The data showed the total number of federal court filings across the nation grew by 28%, from 275,323 in 1993 to 353,522 in 2013.
“It is clear from the analysis that federal courts in America are experiencing unprecedented pressure due to increased filings and stagnant resources,” the report concluded. “The end result is that the federal courts are taking significantly longer to adjudicate both civil and criminal disputes, an outcome that has important social, economic and justice implications for the nation.”
The complex set of data compiled by the TRAC researchers revealed a wide disparity in caseloads based on different judicial regions and, in some cases, even between judges within the same region. For example, the report found that the seven district court judges in the Eastern District of Texas had the highest workloads in the nation, with an average of 1,510 cases each during 2013, followed by Delaware, whose four district court judges had an average of 1,446 cases each.
Researchers determined that both locations are popular for filing patent lawsuits; in fact, around 47% of all patent cases filed in the nation in 2012 and 2013 were litigated in those two districts, with East Texas receiving the most.
The report observed that East Texas had instituted court rules designed to help move patent cases through the system more quickly, though researchers said that practice creates questions: Patent cases tend to be highly complex, “but if [East Texas judges] are resolving them more quickly than the average court.... Are these ‘rocket docket’ procedures producing fair, just and well-reasoned results? And if so, why aren’t they being adopted elsewhere?”
Ranking third in the number of caseloads are federal district courts in Arizona, which the report characterized as an “obvious aspect” of the state’s border with Mexico. “As a result of this geographic reality and the concentration of Border Patrol (BP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials along the border, Arizona had one of the highest numbers of immigration prosecutions in the nation.” The district with the lowest caseload? Alaska.
There were other anomalies revealed by the data. For example, the Southern District of New York had a spike in personal injury cases. “Most of these cases arise from the cleanup work in downtown Manhattan following the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and are the last of approximately 11,000 cases filed by first responders and cleanup workers,” the TRAC report noted.
Judge Billy Roy Wilson in the Eastern District of Arkansas closed 3,008 civil cases in the 12-month period from July 2013 to June 2014, more than any other federal district court judge in the nation. Researchers pointed out, however, that comparisons are difficult due to court procedures that allow similar cases from more than one district to be consolidated and assigned to a single judge.
Judge Wilson was assigned numerous lawsuits filed across the country against Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Corp., maker of the drug Prempro, to treat menopause. According to court documents, 9,761 cases against the company were combined on Wilson’s docket.
Not including filings that were consolidated, the judge who closed the most cases during the same 12-month period was Arizona District Court Chief Judge Raner C. Collins, who resolved 1,368 cases. Researchers said that’s because over 95% of those cases were filed by prisoners – the highest number of any jurisdiction in the nation.
Judge Collins downplayed the finding. “My closings look more impressive than they should as most of them come from one prisoner [in Arizona] who filed more than 2,000 cases by himself,” he said. “So regardless of the numbers, I do not believe I am the hardest working judge in the country. I am sure I am not.”
The prisoner who filed those 2,000-plus lawsuits, Dale Maisano, 62, has been trying to draw attention to his claims of inadequate medical care and food by repeatedly suing Arizona prison officials and staff employed by Corizon, the prison system’s medical contractor.
Despite the complexity of the data, researchers said the TRAC report raises fundamental questions that have a far-reaching impact on the federal judiciary and on the administration of justice in the United States.
“Has the pressure of rising workloads led judges to spend less time carefully reviewing the evidence and rendering clear, thoughtful and correct decisions?” the report asked. “Have the same pressures contributed to a growth in plea bargains for criminal cases and the acceptance of imperfect civil settlements to avoid court delays?” Further, when will Congress act to address increasing federal court caseloads and the need to fill judicial vacancies?
“In 2013, the chairman of the Judicial Conference’s committee on resources recommended that Congress establish 65 new permanent judgeships and 20 new temporary judgeships at the district court level. It also recommended that eight temporary judgeships be converted to permanent,” the TRAC report noted. “That request is still pending.”
Sources: http://trac.syr.edu, Associated Press, USA Today
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