No vacancies, but a docket crisis nonetheless

I have been writing recently about the vacancy crisis in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, which has only 11 active judges despite a statutory entitlement to 17 (and a Judicial Conference recommendation for 20). But docket challenges can occur even where a court has its full complement of judges. This story highlights the docket overload in the Middle District of Louisiana, which has all three of its authorized judges in place but which still struggles to manage its docket, one of the heaviest in the nation.

Happily, it appears that Senator John Kennedy is continuing to push for more resources for the district. But in our fractured age, when every judicial appointment has taken on a (misplaced) political tint, it’s nearly impossible to expect that Congress will adequately address the resource need.

Feeling the squeeze, New Jersey’s federal court may borrow judges from Pennsylvania

I previously reported on the judicial vacancy crisis in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The court, entitled to 17 active district judges by law (and recommended to have 20), is now operating with only 11 active judges due to a recent spate of retirements. Making matters worse is the district’s docket — the second heaviest in the nation — and the fact that President Trump has not nominated a single candidate to fill the district’s judicial vacancies.

Chief Judge Freda Wolfson has not been shy about discussing the challenges facing her court. Unable to replace judges on its own, the district is seeking creative ways to manage its docket, including encouraging parties to consent to trial by magistrate, turning away multidistrict litigation, and borrowing “visiting” judges from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The use of visiting judges is not new, and the federal courts have shared judicial resources to the extent permitted by law for nearly a century. Indeed, in the early 1920s Chief Justice Taft (a favorite of this blog) proposed a “flying squadron” of judges who would not be assigned to any specific district but would instead be available to serve in any district where needs were the highest. That suggestion was rejected by Congress, but even today the courts show their ability to adapt to resource deficiencies beyond their control, and beyond their ability to remedy directly.

New Jersey federal judges speak out on vacancy crisis

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey is authorized by law to have 17 active (i.e., full time) district judges. Since 2015, however, retirements have dwindled that number to 11 active judges. And simultaneously, the number of case filings has gone up 150 percent. As a result, the district today faces terrible docket congestion. The number of cases pending more than three years has more than doubled, and the total number of pending cases has more than tripled, over the last four years.

Now some of the district’s judges are speaking out. In a story published on NJ.com, Chief Judge Freda Wolfson insisted that Congress and the President should do their job and fill the vacancies.

While Wolfson said the judges continue to work around the clock and treat every case — no matter the magnitude — diligently, the sheer number of cases is going to inevitably slow down the process.

“We need help tremendously,” Wolfson said. “It is not just to relieve the burden on the judges. It is because we need to service the public as quickly as we can in a just manner.”

There is plenty of fault to go around. The Trump Administration has not put forward a single nomination for the District of New Jersey, even as it works to fill other judicial vacancies at a rapid pace. And in any event, neither of the state’s Democratic Senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, have suggested any willingness to work with the Administration on potential nominees.

As I wrote for The Hill back in March, judicial vacancy emergencies like this stress the capacity of the courts and damage the administration of justice in all cases — most of which are entirely apolitical, garden-variety disputes. Playing politics with judicial appointments is damaging and largely pointless.

Is the Supreme Court rethinking the federal courts’ mission?

My latest piece for the New England Law Professors blog takes a look at the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Home Depot, Inc. v. Jackson, and asks whether the Court is quietly reevaluating the mission of the federal court system.

Give it a read, and while you’re there, check out the wonderful posts by my colleagues in areas as widespread as criminal law, immigration law, and constitutional law.

Want a lighter sentence? Wait for your birthday

That’s the bottom line of this fascinating study by Daniel Chen and Arnaud Philippe. The authors looked at more than four million sentencing decisions in France, and another 600,000 in the U.S. federal courts. They found that French sentences are 3% shorter, and U.S. federal sentences are 33% shorter in the day component, when the defendant is celebrating a birthday. (Month components were unaffected.) The authors also found that in the U.S. courts, significant birthday leniency exists only where the defendant and the judge share the same race.

I am always cautious about making too much of one study, but there certainly seems to be some basis for the authors’ conclusion that “social norms transmitted through rituals can perversely lead to unfair or incorrect decisions in important situations even when professional norms have been designed to mute them.”

Federal courts seek cloud-based Learning Management System

File this one under: Things courts do because they are big organizations.

Earlier this month, the Procurement Office of the United States Courts issued a Request for Information for a cloud-based learning management system that could accommodate up to 20,000 users. The purpose is to update the court system’s existing learning management system, and make it easier for federal court employees across the country to engage in web-based training.

This got a lot of attention among the private organizations that provide IT services to the government, but virtually no attention anywhere else. But it is a reminder that the primary theme of this blog — that court system are massive organizations whose day-to-day behavior mirrors that of other massive organizations — is in evidence behind the scenes on a regular basis.

 

The Affirmation Alternative: A Religious Case for Atheist Oaths

A guest post by M. Ryan Groff

On March 30, 2019, Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke at Pepperdine University School of Law’s 2019 annual dinner. He reflected broadly on the relationship between faith and judicial duty, drawing from his own experiences and also from past conversations with his former colleague, the late Antonin Scalia. During a brief aside, Justice Thomas questioned the meaning of oaths made by atheists:

“As an aside, I think it’s really interesting that people in a profession where we all take an oath, that they would look at people who have strong faith as somehow not good people when, if you’re an atheist, what does an oath mean? If you are a Christian, and you believe in God, what does an oath mean? You know, what do you say at the end of it? ‘So help me God.’ And you have taken an oath to God, and, as Mother Theresa said, it’s between you and God. So, you have given your word… when you give your word to God, is that special? And I think if you are faithful, you think it is special, and you work doubly hard to make sure you live up to it… Not only doesn’t it [faith] interfere in any way, it actually enhances your view of the oath.”

It is not difficult to understand what Justice Thomas means. If someone swears on something he does not believe exists, then there is good cause to question the trustworthiness of whatever was promised. However, the concern with these comments, ironically, has to do with oathtaking in colonial America and one of Congress’s earliest interpretations of the Constitution. Continue reading “The Affirmation Alternative: A Religious Case for Atheist Oaths”