Rep. Johnson Chairs IP Subcommittee Hearing On New Lower Court Judgeships

February 24, 2021
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Hank Johnson (GA-04), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Courts and the Internet, held a hearing today on “The Need for New Lower Court Judgeships, 30 Years in the Making.”

The hearing explored the impact on the judiciary, judges, and litigants of not having a major addition of new lower court judgeships since the last comprehensive judgeship bill more than 30 years ago in 1990.  Since that time, caseloads have increased dramatically, and many stakeholders have expressed concerns about access to justice created by an overburdened judiciary.

To watch the hearing: https://judiciary.house.gov/calendar/eventsingle.aspx?EventID=4378

Witnesses at the hearing included:

•          The Honorable Kimberly J. Mueller, Chief Judge, Eastern District of California; 

•          The Honorable Larry A. Burns, Senior District Judge, Southern District of California;

•          The Honorable Diane J. Humetewa, District Judge, District of Arizona;

•          Brian T. Fitzpatrick, Professor of Law, Vanderbilt Law School; and

•          Marin K. Levy, Professor of Law, Duke School of Law.

Chairman Johnson’s Opening Remarks

Fundamentally, Americans understand that a well-functioning legal system is vital to a healthy, thriving democracy.  I think most of us share a vision of how our federal legal system should work to administer justice.  This vision encapsulates a common-sense understanding of the importance of the constitutional rights to petition the government for redress, to have due process, and to be entitled to a speedy and public trial.  We imagine a system of open and equal justice accessible to everyone, where each and every case is closely supervised by a federal judge who ensures that the case is resolved both fairly and efficiently. 

 

But this vision falls apart if the judicial system doesn’t have enough judgeships to ensure that disputes are not only resolved correctly but also without the unjustifiable expense and delay.  That, unfortunately, is the crisis we face today. 

We hear from small businesses and individual litigants who tell us that because there aren’t enough federal judgeships, their disputes drag on, saddling them with crippling uncertainty and spiraling legal costs.  We hear about how many years it takes to get a case to trial, settlement, or even an appellate decision.  We hear from prosecutors that the delay makes criminal cases harder to prove and we hear from defense attorneys that their clients languish in the limbo of pretrial detention.

We hear about this crisis in the courts all the time, but it’s been going on for so long that we’ve stopped treating it as a crisis.   

The last time Congress passed comprehensive judgeship legislation was 1990, just a year after the World Wide Web was created.  A lot has happened in the ensuing 30 years, to put it mildly.  The country grew by 75 million people.  Our economy more than doubled.  The world became increasingly connected and complex, and the business of the courts changed accordingly.  But even after three decades of rising caseloads and increasingly difficult cases, the number of federal judges has stayed almost exactly the same. 

In some districts, the situation is even more dire.  For example, the Northern District of Georgia, which encompasses Atlanta, hasn’t received a new, district court judgeships since 1978, even though the population of the district has increased exponentially, and the regional economy has been transformed. 

Our federal district judges are extraordinary, but there is only so much they can do to compensate for the fact that they’ve needed reinforcements for decades. And they often rue the techniques they’ve resorted to in order to try to manage their unmanageable caseloads.  At, the appellate level, some circuits have developed docket management practices that raise serious concerns about whether a two-tiered justice system has developed: one reserved for marquee cases, white shoe lawyers, and wealthy litigants; and one for everyone else.  

All this makes clear that we cannot find a workaround to the fact that expanding the lower courts is decades overdue.  The consequences of doing nothing are insidious and can become downright cancerous.  When people lose faith in the federal court system’s ability to resolve disputes justly, quickly, and inexpensively, our democracy suffers.  We need to make sure that the federal courts can still operate according to the principle that justice delayed is justice denied.

I look forward to hearing from our eminently qualified witnesses, who will shed greater light on what it’s like in a judiciary suffering from a chronic lack of judgeships and who will discuss the importance of finally addressing this crisis.

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