WASHINGTON (CN) — The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday called on the Senate to include as part of the next coronavirus-relief bill a bipartisan plan to add new judgeships to federal courts faltering under crushing caseloads.
“I just ask my colleagues to think about putting together a bipartisan package that fills some of the needs, not all, and see if we can convince our respective leaderships to advocate for it on the Phase 4 bill,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who chairs the committee, said Tuesday.
Graham and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, said their staffs should work on sketching out a plan for adding judgeships, with the goal of getting to work on the proposal after the Senate returns from its July 4 recess.
“If under your leadership you can do it, I want to be your Tonto to your Lone Ranger,” Feinstein told Graham.
The proposal would touch on the Judicial Conference’s recommendation last year that Congress authorize five new judgeships on federal appeals courts and 65 new positions on federal trial courts to alleviate rising caseloads.
The request would place new judges in courts across the country, including nine on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California and six on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, both of which have seen rising caseloads without any additional judgeships.
In April, the Judicial Conference separately asked for emergency legislation to add new judgeships to seven courts, including the Eastern District of California, the Western District of Texas and courts in Indiana, Delaware, New Jersey, Arizona and Florida.
It has been nearly 30 years since Congress passed a comprehensive bill adding new circuit and district court judges. The last legislation that created new positions on the federal trial court came in 2002, even as the number of cases filed each year has steadily grown.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller of the Eastern District of Arkansas told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday the rigidity has put increased pressure on judges because filings in trial courts have bumped up 39% since 1990.
“The caseloads have gone up to such a great extent that it’s leading to, I would say, people to start turning away from the federal courts,” Miller told the committee. “And I just think that’s an untenable situation.”
Christian Adams, the president of the Federal Bar Association, told the committee caseloads for some courts have grown so burdensome that litigants might be avoiding filing cases because they take too long to resolve. The Eastern District of California, Adams said, simply cannot comply with laws that dictate how quickly cases should proceed.
The long delays can benefit deep-pocketed litigants who can afford them. Some litigants can also use the delays tactically, running out the clock on the claims against them or extracting settlements from their opponents, Adams said.
“On behalf of my clients and our association’s members, federal court is where we want to be to litigate our disputes,” Adams told the committee. “And when the backlog of cases and the timing and the cost incurred associated with that impacts our clients and impacts our cases to the extent that we are looking for other options to resolve our disputes, the impact is tremendously damaging.”
But the ability to appoint federal judges is a political prize made all the more enticing with a presidential election looming in just more than four months. President Donald Trump has appointed 200 judges in his time in office, igniting fierce opposition and promises of a retaliatory appointments push from Democrats.
Several Democrats used their time in the hearing Tuesday to take on Trump’s judicial appointees, calling them unqualified and insufficiently diverse.
Graham and Feinstein both acknowledged the potential political difficulties of adding judgeships. Feinstein said the exact number the senators strive to reach does not necessarily need to match the Judicial Conference’s request.
Fix the Court, a nonpartisan group that advocates for reforms to federal courts, has suggested staggering the addition of new judgeships to meet the Judicial Conference’s proposal across the next two decades, with the most burdened courts getting new seats first.
“Two decades may seem like a long time to arrive at a fully staffed bench, but given the contentiousness of adding new judgeships, incremental progress may be the only way to ensure the process is conferred with broad-based legitimacy,” Gabe Roth, the executive director of Fix the Court, said in a statement Tuesday.
To Graham, however, the looming election might be helpful because each party would vote on the package without knowing whether they would benefit from being able to make the additional appointments.
“Seems to me that maybe this is the best time to do it because nobody knows the outcome and we all agree we need more judges,” Graham said.