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Report: Judicial vacancies causing crippling gridlock

Lawyers says some defendants in criminal proceedings plead guilty to avoid lengthy pre-trial detentions

Judicial vacancies in federal courts are reportedly causing long case delays that drive up the cost of litigation and sometimes pressure defendants to plead guilty.

A report from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, released Monday, called on the White House and lawmakers to prioritize filling vacant federal judge positions.

The White House nominates federal judges after consulting with senators from the judges’ home state. Although the report said that judicial nominations have accelerated since April, half of all vacancies – 25 spots – will remain unfilled in the indefinite future.

“There has been tremendous progress in filling judicial vacancies in recent months, with Harry Reid making them a priority,” said Alicia Bannon, the researcher behind the study.

Still, there are formidable barriers.

“Time-wasting techniques continue to slow down even non-controversial confirmations,” said Bannon. “The blue slip process, which gives some home state senators a veto over judicial nominees, has also held up nominees and contributed to the high number of vacancies without nominees. We urgently need to reform these Senate rules and practices.”

Elements of a fair trial as basic as accurate evidence and testimony are at stake, according to the report.

“People lose their memory of what occurred, evidence spoils, people die. It’s not a good thing,” the chief judge in the Eastern District of California, Morrison England, was quoted as saying in the report. Some judges are reportedly traveling hundreds of miles to hear cases in districts where vacancies have resulted in overwhelming caseloads. In the Eastern District of Texas, a judge routinely travels 350 miles each way to compensate for a vacancy, Bannon said.

And the effects can be more dire for defendants. Some lawyers said that their clients had pleaded guilty to end long-running pre-trial detentions.

“You can’t underestimate the quieting effect it has on defendants’ willingness to assert their right to a trial,” an unnamed attorney from the Eastern District of Texas said in the report.

For the study, researchers conducted interviews with 20 legal professionals – including judges and clerks – at federal trial courts in 10 judicial districts with recent vacancies: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Texas and Wisconsin.

In four of the 10 districts, judges reportedly told Bannon that heavy caseloads had caused them to spend less time deliberating on individual cases. 

Nine new district judge vacancies are set to open before the end of the year.

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