The federal judiciary has recently found itself in a precarious position. According to a February 8 article in the Washington Post, new bench vacancies are occurring at a rate of close to one per week, which has doubled the number of total vacancies since President Obama took office. Indeed, out of the 857 judgeships nationally, 101 sit vacant, 46 have been deemed “judicial emergencies,” and around 15 more are expected to become vacant this year.
The effects of this are being felt around the country, as the shortage has forced sitting judges to pick up the slack, and in many courts, to delay trials. For instance, the three judges in the federal district that surrounds Tucson, Arizona are currently handling dockets of over 1,200 criminal cases each. In the Central District of Illinois, three of four spots are still open, which has forced the Chief Judge to commute over 90 miles to help share the burden. As delays of three years are beginning to become the norm in federal civil cases, some judges and analysts are starting to worry that people may lose faith in the rule of law.
Analysts point to several factors as the cause of this emergency. First, the glacial pace of the Senate confirmation system, and delay tactics by Republican Senators, have made placing new judges more difficult that necessary. Second, the Obama White House has been slower than previous administrations in nominating judges. When combined, these factors have accounted for the lowest number of judicial confirmations of a new President’s nominees in 35 years.
However, the last few weeks have shown some promise. The White House and leaders of both parties in the Senate have agreed to bypass the procedural maneuvering that is commonly used by both sides to delay confirmations; and on February 7, the Judiciary Committee was able to approve the President’s nominees for positions in Arkansas, Oregon and Texas. While the current situation remains somewhat bleak, I remain hopeful that this mess will be resolved sooner rather than later. Make sure to check back for updates as the process unfolds.