(CN) - Sherman is a small town of roughly 35,000 situated on the dusty stretched-out tracts of the northern part of Texas, just south of the Oklahoma border.
In the county jail, as many as 200 criminal defendants who have already pleaded guilty are milling about behind bars awaiting sentences. They have little access to the work or educational facilities available at the federal facilities they'll head to once their sentencing hearings are finally processed.
So why the wait?
The federal court in Sherman has a judicial vacancy that is hampering its ability to faithfully administer justice to the more than 2 million people it serves, according to a recent study published by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. The vacancy means there is only one resident judge who hears cases, while the slack is picked up by two other judges who travel more than 350 miles to the federal courthouse in Sherman.
"It's not fair to [the inmates] and adds a great deal of unnecessary cost by having to house them for so long in county jail holding facilities," U.S. District Chief Judge Leonard Davis, of the Eastern District of Texas, told the authors of the report.
The difficulties in Sherman extend to civil cases as well, with lawyers fretting that the complexities of their cases don't get their due diligence because judges are overextended.
Ironically, Davis retired soon after giving that interview to the authors of the study, and the Eastern District continues to be addled by a judge shortage.
The problem, according to Alicia Bannon, senior law counsel at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice and author of the aforementioned study, is that this urgent lack of federal judges is not unique to the Eastern District of Texas.
Instead, unfilled judicial vacancies at the district court level are occurring across the nation at an unprecedented level, mainly due to obstruction of the Republican-led Senate which has prioritized non-cooperation with President Barack Obama over the efficient administration of justice.
"We are seeing delays across the board when it comes to hearing cases and judges are not able to do their jobs," said Alicia Bannon, the senior law counsel at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "People and businesses all around the county are forced to wait sometimes years for their cases to be heard."
She added, "In many of these cases justice delayed is justice denied."
A recent report by the Congressional Research Service shows that vacancies have increased by 83 percent since President Barack Obama first took office in 2009, a particularly stark increase given that vacancies decreased during the administrations of the two previous presidents — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
At present, Congress has authorized 673 judgeships in the 91 judicial districts that comprise federal court at the district level. Of those, there are 75 vacancies - 11 percent - with six more federal judges indicating they intend to step down before Obama leaves office in January, according to the report.
As of September 1, 47 of the 91 judgeships have at least one vacancy. This means more than half of the district courts in the United States have an incomplete roster of judges, the report states.
What is the cause for the unprecedented level of vacancies? According to Bannon, the cause is simple.