New release of federal criminal justice data — only 3% of cases go to trial

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released its newest data on the federal criminal justice system, from 2013-14.  Among the highlights:

  • During 2014, federal law enforcement made 165,265 arrests, a 12% decrease from 188,164 arrests in 2013.
  • In 2014, the five federal judicial districts along the U.S.-Mexico border accounted for 61% of federal arrests, 55% of suspects investigated, and 39% of offenders sentenced to federal prison.
  • There were 81,881 federal immigration arrests made in 2014—one-half of all federal arrests.
  • Ninety-one percent of felons in cases terminated in U.S. district court in 2014 were convicted as the result of a guilty plea, 6% were dismissed, and 3% received a jury or bench trial.

While the data themselves are about two years behind, they obviously inform current policy debates.  The entire statistical package also gives a better sense of the coordination between the federal courts and the DEA, U.S. Marshals, federal prison system, and federal prosecutors.

Gorsuch hearing preview: A moment where state ties trump partisanship

Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch begin today with the introduction of the nominee by his home state senators, Michael Bennett and Cory Gardner of Colorado.  It is a nice bipartisan tradition for the home-state senators to introduce all federal judicial nominees, presumably dating back to a time when the rest of the Senate was not assumed to be familiar with a candidate.  While almost all post-Robert Bork Supreme Court hearings have been contentious at times — usually unnecessarily so — it is a nod to decorum that the Senate still begins every hearing with such a welcoming gesture.

Home-state bipartisanship in judicial selection is not just a matter of courtesy. Senators from many states have developed bipartisan screening committees to help them recommend qualified candidates for lower federal judgeships to the President.  These screening committees review the qualifications of those interested in judgeships on federal district courts and circuit courts of appeal, and pass the names along to the home state senators, who then pass along names to the President.  While the President has ultimate discretion in choosing a nominee for any Article III judgeship, the use of screening committees effectively pre-ratifies the candidate, and helps ensure a much smoother confirmation process.  The Supreme Court represents a special circumstance where screening committees are not used, but we can hope that both President Trump and the Senate will continue to rely on them where appropriate in considering lower court nominees.

We will be following the Gorsuch hearings this week, with commentary to follow on how the hearings reflect and impact the current relationship between Congress and the courts.

 

 

The numbers supporting the push for more federal judges

On Tuesday, the Judicial Conference of the United States agreed to recommend to Congress to create 57 new federal judgeships — 5 in the circuit courts and 52 in the district courts.  The Conference further recommended that eight temporary or part-time district judgeships be converted to permanent status.

In its press release, the Conference emphasized the growth of the federal courts’ overall docket since 1990, when the last comprehensive judgeship bill was enacted.  In that quarter-century plus, district court filings have grown 38 percent (with nearly equal growth in criminal and civil filings), and appellate courts have grown by 40 percent.

But the recommendations are more narrowly tailored than a simply 40 percent boost in judges nationwide.  Only one of the thirteen appellate courts (the Ninth) is a suggested recipient of more judges, and only 27 of the 94 district courts are deemed to need new judgeships.

An examination of some of these targeted districts, and why it matters, after the jump.

Continue reading “The numbers supporting the push for more federal judges”

AO releases 2016 Annual Report and Statistics

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has published its 2016 Annual Report and statistical tables. Although many of the most interesting tables are not publicly released, those that are released provide a wealth of information on federal court dockets and operations. I will likely have more to say about the 2016 statistics in the coming days, once I have a chance to go through the tables a bit.

Neil Gorsuch and judicial administration

The BNA reports here that if he is confirmed to the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch would lose his position as Chair of the federal Advisory Committee on Appellate Rules, a role he has occupied since last October.  This is only a minor administrative inconvenience for the federal court system; Chief Justice Roberts no doubt has already considered how to replace Judge Gorsuch on that committee. But the article does provide an important reminder about the considerable experience Judge Gorsuch brings to judicial administration, and lets us consider why such experience matters. Continue reading “Neil Gorsuch and judicial administration”

Could the Ninth Circuit rule on its own split?

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has introduced a bill (one of four currently in Congress) to split the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals into two circuit courts.  Apparently in response to reports that Ninth Circuit judges opposed the bill, Senator Flake asked the Ninth Circuit Executive for clarification on the court’s ability to rule fairly if the legislation were adopted and subsequently challenged. This week,  Cathy Catterson, the Circuit Executive of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, responded with an unqualified yes.

Given that bills to split the Ninth Circuit have been introduced many times since 1941, and have never gained serious traction, it is hard to see this as anything more than political posturing.  But the regular recurrence of the proposal again illustrates the deep interdependence of the federal courts.  Indeed, circuit reorganization is literally an existential issue, affecting active judgeships, resources, case assignments, precedent, and internal court dynamics.  The judges naturally have an interest in the outcome, but they lack any direct say in it.

So let’s play out the hypothetical.  Could the Ninth Circuit judges rule on the reorganization of their own court?  And what would that look like? Continue reading “Could the Ninth Circuit rule on its own split?”

Interdependence Classics: Deanelle Reece Tacha, Independence of the Judiciary for the Third Century

This is the first in a series of occasional posts, highlighting scholarship and writings on the relationship between the court system and its external environment.

Tenth Circuit Judge Deanelle Reece Tacha’s 1995 article, Independence of the Judiciary in the Third Century, offers a short and engaging summary of the dependency issues that the federal courts faced at the end of the twentieth century.  Much of her description and analysis is equally relevant today.

Judge Tacha notes from the outset that “[e]xamining the independence of the judiciary and perceptions about its erosion requires that one see the issue in both the institutional and the individual sense.”  It is natural, and in a sense traditional, to think of independence in terms of tenure protection. But while life tenure protects individual judges from the vagaries of the political climate, it does not protect the judiciary as a whole from resource-related strains.

Continue reading “Interdependence Classics: Deanelle Reece Tacha, Independence of the Judiciary for the Third Century”

WSJ on ABA Vetting of Judicial Nominees

The Wall Street Journal posted a nice article this weekend on the role of the American bar Association in reviewing and rating federal judicial nominees.  (I was quoted, which was also nice!)  It gives a good summary of the ABA’s rating process and the history behind it.

The ABA ratings have had their share of controversy, and in an age where everything is increasingly politicized, we should not be surprised if controversy continues.  But the ABA’s overt avoidance of political/policy questions, and deliberate focus on the qualities everyone would expect of a good judge (appropriate demeanor, high level of competence, intelligence and legal skills, etc.) make it a worthwhile addition to the overall vetting process.  Nor is the ABA alone: similar criteria are used by state judicial nominating commissions across the country.

The ABA’s involvement also underscores an oddity of federal judicial selection: almost everyone gets a say in the timing and substance of judicial nominations except the courts themselves.  I’m hard pressed to think of another sizeable organization that is so constrained in hiring its core employees.

If you hit a subscription wall, a PDF of the article is here.