Longest federal judicial vacancy gets another nominee

A seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which has been vacant for nearly fourteen years, may finally be filled after President Trump nominated UNC law professor Richard E. Myers II for the position on Wednesday.

The vacancy, which has been in place since the end of 2005, is a testament to the dereliction of constitutional duties by both the executive and legislative branches. George W. Bush originally nominated attorney Thomas Farr to the seat, but Senate Democrats twice blocked the nomination. President Obama then offered two different nominees for the same seat during his eight years in office, only to have both nominations blocked by home-state Republicans. President Trump renominated Farr to the seat in 2017, but no vote ever came to the Senate floor.

Partisans will surely argue that each of the opposing party’s nominees was unacceptable, and that North Carolinians are better off with no judge than with a bad one. But tell that to the people who have had to wait longer for their cases to resolve.

Good luck to Professor Myers, who deserves better treatment than previous nominees and at least a speedy and fair up-or-down vote.

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.

The PACER class action and the problem of court funding

Which is the best model for charging for access to court records: a rest stop, a bus pass, or a bake sale?

What (if anything) should the judiciary charge for public access to records, and how should that decision be made? That question is now squarely facing the federal courts and Congress.

I have blogged periodically about the 2016 class action lawsuit alleging that the federal courts overcharged users for access to its electronic public records system (known as PACER), and used the surplus to fund a variety of internal projects. Last spring, a federal district judge granted partial summary judgment to the defendants as to liability, but concluded that some of the project funding had indeed exceeded Congressional authorization. The decision is now on appeal.

Although no decision will be coming for a while, a number of recent events have returned the case to the public eye. In late January, several prominent, retired federal judges filed an amicus brief arguing that the courts should not charge any fees for public access to court records. That brief led to a story in the New Republic entitled “The Courts Are Making a Killing on Public Records.” All the while, the five-week federal government shutdown forced the courts to use up all of their “rainy day” resources and put them on the verge of operating without funding, illustrating the relative financial fragility of the courts as an organization.

I take as a given that the federal court system, as a whole, is committed to providing public access for all. But it is also a given that on an organizational level, the court system feels an obligation to protect its core activities from environmental disruption, including financial disruption. The current lawsuit provides an excellent illustration of the underlying tension between those values, and also suggests a solution. More below. Continue reading “The PACER class action and the problem of court funding”

Update on legislation affecting the federal courts

Members of Congress have recently introduced several bills that would affect the staffing, administration, or jurisdiction of the federal courts. Among them:

  • The Injunction Authority Clarification Act of 2018 would prevent a court from enforcing an injunction against a non-party to the suit, “unless the party is acting in a representative capacity pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Howard Wasserman has a good analysis of the bill here.
  • The Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2018 would ensure free public access to public records on the federal courts’ PACER system. Members of the public are currently charged 10 cents per page to access documents online, unless they obtain a fee waiver from the individual court in which the case is pending. I know PACER can be a meaningful source of income for the court system, but I have long supported opening up PACER access without fee restrictions.
  • The ROOM Act would add 52 new federal district judges, and would require the Supreme Court (by audio) and Courts of Appeal (by video) to stream their oral arguments live when possible, and otherwise with an archive delay. None of these proposals is new, and indeed the addition of district judges has long been requested by the courts themselves.

We’ll see if, and how, any of these nascent pieces of legislation develop.

Examining the impact of President Trump’s judicial appointments

It has been widely reported that President Trump is filling federal judicial vacancies at a much faster pace than his predecessors. But the political impact of that pace is blunted by several factors, including the fact that most existing vacancies were created by the retirement of a previous Republican appointee, and the fact that many circuit courts continue to be dominated by Democratic appointees.

Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution provides an outstanding analysis of the impact of the President’s judicial appointments here. It is highly recommended reading, as is everything Russell writes on this and related issues.

Legislation introduced (again) to split the Ninth Circuit

In what has become almost an annual rite, a member of Congress has introduced a bill to split the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals into two. The new bill (S. 3259), proposed by Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan, would also add 57 new judgeships around the country, and would additionally give permanent status to eight existing temporary judgeships.

Senator Sullivan explained:

“In 1970, Chief Justice Warren Burger warned that ‘a sense of confidence in the courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people,’ and cautioned that inefficiency and delay in our courts of appeals could destroy that confidence. Unfortunately, as it is currently constituted, the Ninth Circuit Court is inefficient, it delays, and therefore denies justice for millions of Americans. We cannot allow the confidence in our system of justice to be undermined by continuing a court of appeals that is so large and so unwieldy.”

The efficiency concerns are real, but this bill is probably going nowhere.

 

Federal judicial nominations are caught up in a political fight (again)

Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the most prominent Republican critics of President Trump, has stated that he “and a few other senators” plan not to vote on any more federal judicial nominations until Congress acts on other issues:

“I do think that unless we can actually do something other than just approving the president’s executive calendar, his nominees, judges, that we have no reason to be there,” Flake said. “So, I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us will stand up and say let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote for example on tariffs.”

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“The Senate ought to bring legislation to the floor that says hey, we’re going to push back here,” Flake said. “The European Union exporting cars to the U.S. does not represent a national security threat.”

Senator Flake is right about the need for Congress to step up and do its job in a rigorous and thoughtful manner. But it’s a damning indictment of that body that it cannot simultaneously govern the country and approve judicial nominees. Meanwhile, the federal court system continues to operate with many fewer judges than it believes necessary to do its work properly.