Judicial Delay: Stark Reality of Vacant Benches ; in Federal Courts Nationwide, the Wait for a Typical Civil Trial Is Now Two Years

Article excerpt

With nearly 12 percent of all federal judge positions vacant across the United States, there is no doubt among legal analysts that the efficiency of the courts is suffering.

But is the perpetual high judicial vacancy rate eroding the quality of justice in America?

For the most part, the nation's judges are trying to take up the slack. They are relying on semi-retired judges pressed back into service and in some cases employing innovative case-management techniques to avoid a judicial meltdown.

But as the White House and the US Senate prepare for perhaps the most contentious and drawn-out battle yet over judicial nominees and the direction of the courts, the costs of a chronically undermanned judiciary are coming into sharper focus.

It is a price that will be paid in large part by ordinary Americans.

Because the US Constitution guarantees a speedy trial to criminal defendants, criminal cases must be given preference by judges. As a result, civil cases - such as discrimination suits, product- liability claims, and contract disputes - are routinely postponed so a judge can devote his or her full attention to the most pressing cases.

It now takes almost two years for the average civil case filed in federal court to simply get to trial. Since 1995, the number of civil cases pending for at least three years has more than doubled.

"It is quite true that justice delayed is justice denied," says Carlton Carl of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America in Washington.

"If there is, for example, a legitimate claim against an insurance company and the insurance company can delay for 10 years ... basically the injured person is forced to wait," he says. "An injured person may have to mortgage his or her house to pay medical bills, or sell the house, or go bankrupt."

Still high quality?

Allan Ashman of the Hunter Center for Judicial Selection at the American Judicature Society in Chicago views the issue from a different perspective. "Given the heavy workload that all our federal and state judges face, it certainly puts an extra burden on the judges," he says. "But it doesn't mean necessarily that the work they are doing on individual cases suffers."

"We aren't getting less justice. It is just not being processed as quickly as it might be," Mr. Ashman says.

The impact of vacant judgeships isn't being felt just in civil cases. Some courts are struggling to keep pace with a huge volume of criminal cases.

For example, each of the five federal districts along the US- Mexico border is being inundated with a flood of prosecutions of drug traffickers and smugglers in the wake of a massive investment by Congress to beef up border-enforcement efforts.

The problem is that while Congress provided funds for more agents who are now making more arrests, lawmakers did not anticipate the need for more federal judges for the inevitable trials. …