Federal judges from the Eastern District of California penned a letter to the United States Senate and House of Representatives regarding what they call an upcoming crisis in the number of judges on the bench and their caseloads.
The federal court, made up six district judges, three senior judges, 12 magistrate judges and six bankruptcy judges are not enough to handle the growing population of the Eastern California district, according to the letter’s author, Chief District Judge Lawrence O’Neill.
Eastern California has in its boundaries 8 million people and has grown 220 percent in population since the last new judgeship was created in 1978. It oversees 55 percent of the land in the state and 34 of the 58 counties in California.
Comparatively, the Northern District of California has less than a 4 percent difference in terms of population but has 14 district judges, versus the six in the Eastern District.
Judges handle a typical caseload of 900 cases at any given time, according to the letter, which is already twice what the national average.
The problem will be compounded when two of those six judges retire in the next 19 months, as they have announced.
One will announce their retirement in December and the other in January. Judges are required to give a year’s notice before they step down and neither have said that they will take on senior status.
Additionally, one of the three senior district judges has announced that he will step down.
Another senior judge is only taking half of a normal caseload and the other is no longer taking criminal cases at all.
This could potentially mean 2000 more cases would need to be distributed among the remaining four judges, meaning 500 more for each of them.
“Unless something is done in a major way in the next year and a half, the ability of judges in this district to handle civil cases at least and perhaps even criminal cases is going to evaporate,” said O’Neill.
While the Constitution mandates a speedy trial, that is only extended to criminal cases. This means that as federal cases like water disputes or interstate commerce come to be heard, criminal cases have to be prioritized to meet the requirement of being heard in a reasonable time. This could potentially mean some civil cases aren’t even being heard.
“We’re moving very quickly to the point where the question is no longer the delay,” said O’Neill. “The question is whether we’re going to have the resources to handle them at all.”
This comes at a time that the United States attorney for the EDCA announced an effort to fill all vacant positions across the district, which could mean “a serious and substantial uptick in the number of indictments to be sought and filed,” according to the letter.
What’s more is the difficulty of getting judges confirmed. When now-Senior District Judge Anthony Ishii announced his retirement, it took three years after the effective date he took on senior status to replace him.
With this in mind, when the two retiring judges write their letters of coming resignation, they will be asking President Donald Trump for an expedited nomination and confirmation process for a seamless transition.
The district judges are also requesting that congress introduce an emergency bill to create a minimum of five new judgeships.