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Press Release

    Nation's Judges Make a Personal Plea to Fill Benches

    05/30/2002

    Originally ran in the the Washington Times.

    The nation's federal judges yesterday implored Congress to look beyond debates over judicial vacancies long enough to increase the number of judgeships by 54.

    Combined with 88 vacancies, the system is 142 judges short of the number needed to keep pace with "staggering" caseloads, the U.S. Judicial Conference said, arguing that creating only 19 judgeships since 1990 was "akin to applying a Band-Aid to a hemorrhage" and creating "a quiet crisis."

    "It is time for Congress to address this problem in a meaningful way," Judicial Conference Secretary Leonidas R. Mecham said in a three-page letter hand-delivered to the ranking Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate judiciary committees and party leaders in both houses.

    Since 1990, the number of judges increased 2.5 percent while appeals filings rose 39 percent and new cases in district courts increased 22 percent, largely because Congress expanded federal court jurisdiction, Mr. Mecham said. He said filling all the vacancies won't fix the problem.

    The most needy is the Southern District of California — centered on San Diego, the nation's seventh-largest city — where eight full-time judges and five part-time, semiretired judges over age 70 keep pace with the help of judges from around the nation, said Chief District Judge Marilyn Huff. The Judicial Conference wants to double the number there to 16 active judges.

    Judge Huff said the average federal judge handles 75 criminal cases a year, while San Diego federal judges average 478 a year. "Our overall weighted caseload last year was 1,068 with eight judges, the highest in the nation, while New York's Southern District, which has 28 judges, had an average of 546 cases," she said.

    The proximity of six U.S. border stations, including one where 250,000 people cross each day, raises anti-terrorism issues as well as a raft of drug and immigration problems, she said.

    "Congress is focused on the vacancies. We have no vacancy, but we have a dramatic need," said Judge Huff, appointed in 1991, who said she loves her job and doesn't plan to leave. "I think one of these days Congress will wake up and provide judges here. It's so sad, really so sad. It's not a Republican issue, it's not a Democratic issue."

    "How many major corporations or executive branch agencies could function with so many senior management positions unfilled?" Mr. Mecham asked in his letter, which abandoned the deferential tone that the prestigious Judicial Conference typically takes with those who control judges' pay raises and operating funds. "While this concern has not captured the attention of Congress, the president or the news media, its impact on court operations has been profound."

    He attached no cost figures to the request, but a judiciary spokesman said the first-year cost for a new judgeship is about $1million, including work space, two law clerks, a secretary and other support staff, and less after the first year.

    Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist presides over the U.S. Judicial Conference, which makes policy for the federal court system. The conference also includes chief judges of the 13 circuit appeals courts, 12 district judges, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade.

    On most issues, the conference typically sends respectful reminders that its workload is growing and its paychecks are frozen, usually laden with statistics and presented in ways that avoid any appearance of hectoring legislators.

    This time the conference said increasing delay in some courts "is not because of the heated and highly publicized debate over the filling of vacancies. Rather it is due to the quiet crisis of too few judgeships."

    The letter proposed 44 more judgeships in 24 of the nation's federal trial districts, with 21 of them "temporary" positions. Mr. Mecham said appeals courts need 10 additional judges, of whom four would fill temporary positions.

    "While it certainly is the prerogative of Congress to add to the jurisdiction of the federal courts — which it has done increasingly in recent years — it also is fair to expect that Congress will provide the necessary judicial resources to meet these new responsibilities," Mr. Mecham said.

    The Judicial Conference plan would give the West Coast's 9th Circuit five more judges, with two each for the 2nd and 6th circuits, and one in the 1st Circuit.