Judicial Vacancy Epidemic Continues to Sweep Across the States

California and Texas are only two of many states impacted by a judicial vacancy epidemic that has struck the nation in recent years.

The Associated Press addresses the issue with an article titled, “Wheels of Justice Slow at Overloaded Federal Courts.” The AP cites the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the rising delay in resolving civil and criminal cases because of judges’ ever-increasing workload.

The article says that the challenges are “particularly acute” in some federal courts where the judges deal with double the workload of the national average, like in the Eastern Districts of California and Texas.

Not only has the Eastern District of California had a judicial vacancy for almost three years, the article says, but the court has not had an increase in judges since 1978, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The AP reports that California’s Eastern District in Fresno is currently sustained by only one full-time district court judge, Lawrence O’Neill. The situation in the Eastern District of Texas is similar, the AP says.

According to the article, Judge O’Neill says, “We can slow things down because we simply can’t work any harder or faster… But the real important effect of that is people who need our help to move their lives forward are delayed.” 

Matt Menendez, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice finds the judicial vacancies that the federal courts are facing today to be “quite bad.” The Brennan Center is a Justice at Stake partner organization.

Legal scholars say, “Congress needs to fill judicial vacancies more quickly but also increase the number of judges in some districts — both issues that get bogged down in partisan political fights over judicial nominees,” according to the AP.

Opinion: Vacancy Threatens Colorado’s Overburdened Federal Court

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado is struggling to handle too many cases with too few judges, says a Colorado Statesman op-ed, expressing concern for the state’s citizens who “cannot get timely justice or resolution of disputes”.

Currently, only seven judges handle all of the state’s civil and criminal trial-level cases.  Despite the growing number of Coloradans, Congress has not increased the number of judges since 1984, the op-ed says. The understaffed, overloaded District Court may face a greater change if the number of full-time judges drops to six. According to the op-ed,  U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn announced he will be taking senior status starting in April 2016.

The op-ed was written by Dave Montez, executive director of One Colorado Education Fund. He notes that Colorado’s two U.S. senators “have each created separate screening committees that do not appear to be planning to work together.” Montez also advocates for diversity on the bench, saying the judicial vacancy “provides an opportunity for our senators to select candidates who reflect the diversity of our state.”



Editorial: Are Critics Assailing WA High Court for Political Gain?

An editorial by The Olympian suggests that with tensions simmering in the Washington legislature over state high court rulings on school funding, critics may be assailing the court for political gain.

The tension was evident in the McCleary case on public school funding. According to The Olympian, the court concluded that the state violated the Constitution, requesting a funding plan for basic education by 2018. When lawmakers responded with a $2.4 billion plan, the legislators did not make any changes to the schools’ funding, the editorial says, leaving districts unequally funded.

The Olympian adds that in a recent case on charter schools, the court nullified state funding of the charters. While the Washington Education Association was an “interested party” in the case, the editorial says, “it’s outlandish to think campaign contributions of up to $1,900 from the state’s largest teachers union to seven justices sealed the deals.”

Recently, legislators have unveiled proposals to require recusal of a justice if his or her campaign gets campaign donations of $1,000 or more from a party to a case, or for the public financing of judicial elections. “The real driver behind the initiative, … is ire over the high court’s handling of school funding issues,” the editorial asserts. “Court critics may just be stirring public passions in order to drum support for conservatives running for the court next year; if so, we understand.”


Judicial Vacancies Rising, Confirmations Dropping

The Huffington Post addresses the U.S. Senate’s delayed action on judicial confirmations across the states in a column headlined, “Congratulations, GOP. You’re Confirming Judges At The Slowest Rate In 60 Years”.

According to the article, an analysis by Alliance for Justice found that “six confirmations is the slowest single-year pace since the Senate confirmed a total of nine judges in 1953.” It adds that the number of judicial emergencies has increased by 158 percent. Currently, there are 32 other judicial nominees whose confirmations are pending in the U.S. Senate as vacancies continue to rise, according to the piece.

Meanwhile, the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune reports that an Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Wilhelmina Wright, was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to become a federal district judge in Minnesota. But “whether she will be confirmed by the gridlocked Senate this year remains a question mark,” the Star Tribune notes.

And in Florida, where several judicial emergencies exist, First Judicial Circuit Judge Jan Shackelford is one of three finalists selected to be a federal judge in the state’s North District, according to the Pensacola News Journal. Once the president announces a nominee, the confirmation will await the Senate’s vote, which could take a significant amount of time.  Floridian Mary Barzee Flores was nominated for a position on the federal bench for the Southern District in Florida six months ago and is still awaiting confirmation. See Gavel Grab.


Is Partisanship Keeping Floridians From Having a Judge?

Political partisanship could be contributing to judicial emergencies in Florida, according to an opinion column in the Sun Sentinel.  In the piece, analysts Kyle Barry and Randall Berg argue that Mary Barzee Flores, nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Florida, is eminently qualified and sorely needed in a state where too few judges are handling too-heavy caseloads. But because Sen. Marco Rubio has not returned the “blue slip” form approving her nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee can’t move forward with her confirmation, they note.

Rubio has said he is waiting for Sen. Charles Grassley, the Judiciary Committee Chair, to finish reviewing Flores’ background. But “there is no rule requiring such deference, and there is no reason, other than intentional delay, for Grassley’s review to drag on for six months,” the Sentinel piece concludes.  Rather, the writers argue, “pure partisan politics” may be at fault.

Flores was nominated by President Obama over six months ago; the average wait for a confirmation hearing in the current administration is 84 days.

Controversy has been ongoing about the pace of federal judicial nominations, with critics accusing the GOP-led Senate of obstructing the President’s choices.  Nationwide, more than 60 federal judgeships currently are empty. See Gavel Grab.


California’s Diversity Addressed in its Courts

The Napa Valley Register reports that California State Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuèllar spoke at the Legal Aid of Napa Valley’s fifth annual Pro Bono Recognition Event, presenting an ambitious project to tackle language barriers in the California’s courts.

The Justice spoke of his own experience as an immigrant from Mexico as he addressed the difficulties faced by non-English speakers whose languages are unrepresented by the state’s courts. Cuéllar recognized the overdue need to adapt to the people’s diversity in the courts. His goal is make the California court system “accessible to people who speak English as a second language or not at all,” the Register explains. (more…)

Will Elections Mark a Turning Point for PA High Court?

Labor Day marked the beginning of the election campaign for Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, where three  seats are up for grabs, the most in the state’s history. What happens in the November 3rd elections could “flip the partisan scales” on the court, the Associated Press reports.

“Political strategists are bracing for a flood of campaign cash from outside interest groups and major in-state donors that refrained from making contributions in the crowded nomination battle in the May primary,” the AP said.

Three sitting justices on the seven-person court will be reaching the  mandatory retirement age over the next three years. This fall, the two parties are grappling for influence in the state’s top bench. Republicans and the Democrats each have three nominees each for the seats, and one candidate is running as an independent.

Lynn Marks of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts said, “It’s going to be hard to motivate voters to turn out.” Voter turnout was unusually low in the primary contest earlier this year. PMC is a Justice at Stake partner organization.