Monday, October 5, 2009
Judge Tells Senate Federal Courts Are ‘In Crisis’
By a MetNews Staff Writer
U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill of the Eastern District of California traveled to Washington D.C. last week to appeal to lawmakers to pass a bill which would create 63 new federal judgeships across the country, including five in the Central District of California.
Testifying on behalf of Senate Bill 1653 before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, O’Neill said “there are districts in need and in trouble,” a representative of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
The judge told lawmakers that his own district—whose judges currently carry caseloads nearly three times larger than the national average and who are terminating cases at nearly twice the national average—is “in crisis.”
With courthouses in Sacramento and Fresno, the Eastern District serves some 6.7 million people and takes in slightly more than half of the state geographically. The workload is divided among six authorized district judgeships, supplemented by five senior judges and 12 magistrate judges.
O’Neill said he, his colleagues and court staff are regularly working 12 and 14 hours a day and on weekends. He noted that four senior judges carry full caseloads, while a fifth has a caseload of about 40 percent.
“Judges truly have taken it upon themselves to simply continue to work harder and harder and harder,” O’Neill insisted, voicing concern for the health and well being of the senior judges, one of whom is in his 80s.
“We are, indeed, a busy, hard working, smart working, productive and very tired court,” he said. “We need your help and consideration.”
U.S. District Court Judge George Z. Singal of the District of Maine and Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Gerald B. Tjoflat also testified at the Sept. 30 hearing.
Testimony from the judges followed remarks by Sens. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who questioned the cost of adding new judgeships and the methodology used to justify the need for the new positions.
Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, pegged the cost of adding all 63 judgeships at $75 million initially and $62 million annually thereafter, the Ninth Circuit representative said. While saying he generally did not favor adding more judgeships, Sessions acknowledged that some courts clearly were in need, nodding toward O’Neill.
If approved, the bill would provide the Eastern District with four additional permanent judgeships and one temporary judgeship with a term of 10 years, extendable to 14 years. It would be the district’s first new judgeships since 1990. A temporary judgeship granted that year expired in 2004 due to lack of congressional action.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as California’s Central and Northern Districts, would also gain four additional permanent judgeships and one temporary judgeship under the bill.
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