The Pulse

U.S. House committee examines need to expand federal courts

By: - February 26, 2021 8:50 am
Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C.-02, spoke at the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 24.

Population, caseloads are up, but number of judges remains stagnant

Creating new district and circuit court judgeships is now on the congressional agenda 30 years after the last legislative increase in 1990. While population and caseloads continue to grow at a rapid rate, the U.S. has added only 34 District Court judgeships and no Court of Appeals seats since 1991. A House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday brought judges and law professors to discuss the need for more judges, and how to navigate partisan politics in doing so.

Committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said “Access to justice is a constitutional guarantee, but when this promise meets the reality of an overburdened and understaffed court, too often cases may be delayed or rushed and justice short-changed.”

A bill introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in 2018 that sought to add 52 district judgeships after the 2020 election and restructure judicial districts nationwide gained bipartisan support. However, the bill failed to make it out of the committee before the legislative session concluded.

Committee member Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C., echoed the call for a change. She noted that North Carolina has had tremendous population growth without any increase of district court judges.

Ross blamed partisan division for the failure to make progress, pointing out that seat on the Eastern District of North Carolina sat vacant for more than ten years because both parties couldn’t agree on a judicial candidate.

Currently, there are five judges at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, eight at the Middle District, and six at the Western District. Special judges and magistrates within each district also serve various terms.

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C.-09, at U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 24.

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., raised questions about the necessity of adding judges now, saying he’s worried that “expanding lower courts may be a ploy to render the Supreme Court less able effectively to manage them.”

Marin Levy, a law professor at Duke University, testified that the caseload per judge at the appellate level has risen significantly. Nationally, the figure increased by more than 20% from 237 in 1990 to 284 in 2019, crossing the benchmark of 255 set by the judicial conference.

Nadler said that the United States Court of Appeals handles 50,000 appeals, yet fewer than 100 make it to the Supreme Court, making it the last court for most litigants.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield

In a Feb. 21 New York Times article, Rep. G. K. Butterfield was reported to be urging the Biden administration to pick judges with “a diversity of experience in multiple settings and in multiple areas including experiences outside of the law” as part of the greater push for racially diverse candidates. Butterfield was a state superior court judge and a state Supreme Court associate justice from 2001 to 2002 before he ran and won a Congressional seat representing North Carolina’s First Congressional District.

At Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers and experts also spoke about the need to split up that the Ninth Court of Appeals District, which encompasses nine westernmost states and pacific islands. Several bills have been introduced during this Congressional session to add more district judgeships in Colorado and Idaho.

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Yanqi Xu

Yanqi Xu, Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter, came to Policy Watch in December of 2020 from the Investigative Reporting Workshop in D.C., where she combined data and reporting to cover public accountability issues. Yanqi graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2019. Her multimedia work appeared in PolitiFact and the Columbia Missourian, and was featured on the local NPR and NBC affiliates. Originally from China, Yanqi started her career producing newscasts to tell people what’s going on around the world.