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Why Congress is largely to Blame for Federal Court Overload (Part 1): Politics and Budget

— April 10, 2015

An April 6th Wall Street Journal report highlights a growing crisis of case overload within the U.S. judicial system. In 2014, a record number of 337,302 civil cases remained pending in U.S. federal courts, a 20 percent increase since 2004. These cases involve fairly common complaints such as discrimination, Social Security, and personal injury, among others. Over 30,000 cases have been pending for 3 years or more at the end of 2014, with some cases lasting over 10 years. Separation of Powers gives Congress the responsibility to fund and provide for a functioning judiciary. In this two-part analysis, I will illustrate how they have failed on multiple levels. There are many causes for Congressional failure to address the overload; however, the two most common and closely-related reasons are political and budgetary.

The nomination and Senate confirmation process of federal judges has become increasingly politicized, leading to delays in appointments for over a year in some cases. In fact, 43 federal judgeships went vacant by the end of 2014. Whereas the nomination and confirmation process was used as a formality, and often as a bipartisan olive branch in the past, it is being used increasingly as a method for the minority party to show power or air grievances through excessive obstruction. Also, legislative attempts to add judgeships at the federal level, most notably from Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) in 2011, have made it out of committee but stalled on the Senate floor. Additionally, even though Congress has the power to relocate judges to districts in which they are needed the most, attempts to do so have usually been met with similar political gridlock.

Politicization is not the only reason Congress is to blame for the case overload. By the numbers, it would appear that there are simply not enough judges to administer these cases in a timely manner. The most notable example is in the Eastern District of California. The district has twice the number of cases filed per judge than the national average, a whopping 974 in 2014. Yet, despite the district’s population doubling, it currently has the same number of full-time judges, six, as it did in 1980. The Judicial Conference of the United States, the judicial system’s policy-making body, asked Congress in March to create 68 new judgeships, including doubling the number in the beleaguered Eastern California district.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is hesitant to allocate the $1 million annual price tag per additional judge for life on the grounds of taxpayer responsibility, stating that “Adding judgeships in busier courts without simultaneously reducing the number in courts where they aren’t needed is irresponsible.” While fiscal prudence can be praiseworthy in the legislature, funding a properly functioning federal court system is a core responsibility of Congress. With the system as overwhelmed as the Wall Street Journal report indicates, even an optimally relocated staff would hardly solve the problem. Grassley will likely have to reconsider his position and allocate more funding in order to fix what is increasingly becoming a major obstacle to justice.

Sources: – John Council

Wall Street Journal – Joe Palazzolo

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