Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Federal Courts Announce Action on California Prisoner Petitions
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit announced plans yesterday to assist the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in resolving “a crushing influx of cases” brought mostly by inmates in state and federal prisons.
The council said it will join the Eastern District in asking Congress to authorize five new judgeships for the Sacramento/Fresno-based court, and will also recruit judges from other courts in the circuit to assist the district, seek funding for additional law clerks and court staff, and promote mediation and other means to resolve prison matters.
Eastern District Chief Judge Anthony Ishii and Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge J. Clifford Wallace announced the effort at the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Wallace, who chairs a special judicial council committee working with the district court, said that the problems “result not from lack of effort, but lack of judges and staff,” adding that, “judges and court staff are doing all they can, but there are just not enough of them.”
The Eastern District’s six judges terminated 836 cases per judge during fiscal year 2007, the most in the circuit and second most in the nation. The national average for terminations per judge was 468 cases. Despite these efforts, the court’s pending caseload continues to grow, and in March the court reported 602 civil cases more than three years old.
“Judges bear the burden of this heavy caseload, but it is the citizens of the Eastern District who must suffer the delayed administration of justice,” Ishii said.
New case filings in the Eastern District continue to exceed terminations. Judges—including five semi-retired senior district judges, two of whom are carrying nearly full caseloads, and 10 magistrate judges, who have limited authority to preside over cases—had 869 weighted filings per judgeship in fiscal year 2007.
This amount was the highest of any court in the Ninth Circuit and second only to the Eastern District of Louisiana, which saw case filings balloon after Hurricane Katrina.
The burgeoning caseload has been driven by population growth—the Eastern District takes in 18 of California’s top 25 fastest growing counties, according to 2003 census figures—and a phenomenal increase in prisoner filings, as the district claims 19 of the 33 state and federal prisons, and 100,000 of the 167,000 prisoners in California as of 2007.
New prisoner petitions—most of which were pro se, requiring more time and effort to process—amounted to 46 percent of the district’s caseload in fiscal year 2007, and the ratio of 420 prisoner petitions per judge is three to four times more than any other federal court in California. In comparison, the Central District of California, headquartered in Los Angeles with 28 judges, had 2,735 prisoner petitions, or 98 per judge.
Under the current standard requiring a minimum of 430 weighted filings per judgeship, a statistical work measure used in part to determine need, the Eastern District qualifies for as many as six new judgeships.
Congress has authorized 14 additional permanent and temporary judgeships for the four districts in California since 1990, but the Eastern District has received only one: a temporary judgeship authorized in 1990 which expired in 2004 after Congress chose not to renew it.
Congress is currently considering legislation that would provide additional judges to the Eastern District. Senate Bill 1327—which would reinstate the temporary judgeship lost in 2004—has passed the Senate, but awaits approval by the House, while Senate Bill 2774—a federal judgeship bill awaiting action by both bodies—would provide four permanent judgeships to the district.
“We are confident that Congress will act to provide these additional judicial resources,” Wallace said. “The facts clearly show the district’s critical need for more judges.”
The federal judiciary considers the need for new judgeships every two years. The process involves the district court, circuit council and the Judicial Conference of the United States, the national policy-making body for the federal courts.
The conference makes the actual requests to Congress, usually resulting in the introduction of a judgeship bill. The last judgeship request was put forth in 2007 and is largely reflected in S. 2774.
If necessary, the council said, the Eastern District’s request for five permanent judgeships could be included in the next judgeship request, which will be formally considered by the Ninth Circuit’s judicial council later this year and by the Judicial Conference of the United States in March 2009.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company