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Thursday, July 11, 2024 | Back issues
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Senate Judiciary Committee advances bipartisan bill to add dozens of judges to federal courts

If made law, the legislation would create 63 positions on U.S. district courts — the first major expansion since the 1990s.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate’s judicial affairs panel on Thursday voted to advance a bill aimed at adding dozens of new judges to U.S. district courts. Experts say the move will help to ease crushing caseloads on the bench.

It was a rare show of bipartisanship for the often-divided Senate Judiciary Committee, which unanimously approved the Judicial Understaffing Delays Getting Emergencies Solved, or JUDGES, Act.

The measure, a joint effort between Indiana Senator Todd Young and Delaware Senator Chris Coons, ultimately would add 63 new judgeships to U.S. district courts, based on 2023 recommendations by the U.S. Judicial Conference.

Coons said during the Judiciary Committee’s Thursday business meeting that he was “thrilled” his bill was on the move. Federal courts across the country are straining under the weight of increased filings, which amount to as many as 550 cases per judge, he pointed out.

“It’s not sustainable,” he said, “and it’s taking a major toll on new judges. Anyone who is a professional, who intends to carry out their obligations, quickly discovers that managing anything like a 500 or 600 caseload is not manageable.”

But despite its bipartisan appeal, the measure had to overcome some Republican chafing before Thursday’s markup.

Those concerns were illustrated by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who has been reticent about backing additional permanent judgeships. He said he hadn’t been satisfied with the Judicial Conference’s recommendations and took issue with which courts it suggested should get new judges.

Grassley added that he had also been worried Washington was wasting money staffing the offices of certain federal judges who he said aren’t working hard while others are saddled with heavy caseloads.

“But after years of having these concerns about whether we ought to put on more judges or not,” the Iowa Republican said, “I still have to say that the people of this country are entitled to justice and justice is a speedy process. When that’s slowed down, it’s not really justice.”

While he contended that the JUDGES Act still creates too many new judgeships, Grassley applauded the collegiality of his colleagues, who he said worked with his office to implement some changes to the legislation.

The amended version of the bill would add new judgeships in six increments over the span of 12 years. The original measure would have achieved the same end result in just two tranches — one in 2025 and another in 2029.

“Given the large amount of judges, this is a much more reasonable and manageable pace for our judiciary,” Grassley said.

The amended bill would also implement a mechanism for evaluating caseloads and the need for future judgeships, achieved in part via a public online database of judges.

Texas Senator John Cornyn expressed reservations similar to Grassley's, saying he would support the bill only based on the understanding that vacancies on Texas courts will continue to be filled via a Senate tradition known as blue slipping, which allows the Lone Star State’s senators to weigh in on White House judicial nominees.

Blue slips “ensure we get the best and the brightest,” Cornyn, said “and Senator [Ted] Cruz and I work hard to advise and consent on Texas nominations.”

The JUDGES Act would create seven new district-level judgeships in Texas, as well as a smattering of new positions in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York.

Both Cornyn and Grassley ultimately voted in favor of the measure.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the Judiciary Committee’s Republican ranking member, quipped that he'd expected his colleagues’ malaise over new judges to doom the bill.

“I thought this thing was going nowhere,” he said. “The bottom line is, I’ve never seen this committee work together more collaboratively.”

Graham also extolled the need to expand the judiciary.

“I just think we need more judges — it’s been since 1990,” the senator opined, adding that the number of new judgeships wasn’t pulled out of a hat.

“Somebody thought about this, and it makes sense,” said Graham. “I share certain governance concerns, but it’s been a long time.”

Thursday’s vote represents a positive development for the federal judiciary, said Carl Tobias, chair of the University of Richmond School of Law.

“It has guardrails,” he said of the JUDGES Act, which includes a provision spacing out new judgeships over 12 years that Tobias said will ensure multiple presidential administrations can appoint judges from the new batch.

“It isn’t going to be seen as a Democratic or Republican advantage,” said Tobias. “They deliberately spaced it out over a long period of time, and I think all of that made it more palatable for everybody.”

While giving the White House more than a decade to add sorely needed U.S. district court positions isn’t ideal for a judiciary bogged down by heavy caseloads, Tobias explained, it's still a welcome change.

“The courts will be happy to have any help,” he said.

Tobias predicted that the measure would pass in the full Senate. The Republican-led House, he cautioned, will be another story.

Still, earning the bipartisan approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee was a big step. Young and Coons had introduced a similar measure in 2021, but it fizzled out before it could see a vote.

Congress last created a new district court judgeship in 2003. The last major U.S. district court expansion, however, was back in 1990.

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