Federal district courts are a crucial part of our judicial system. They not only handle cases arising under federal law (such as copyright, anti-discrimination statutes, and constitutional questions), but also provide litigants access to a neutral playing field in cases where the parties are from different states (known as “diversity jurisdiction” cases). Many litigants favor being in federal court over state court whenever possible because rules of procedure are well defined and strictly followed, discovery disputes are rare, and cases move expediently towards a final trial. Also, life-tenured federal judges are often highly qualified for their posts and not subject to influence by the electorate or campaign donors. However, federal courts in major population centers across the country have recently struggled to keep up with the demands of increasing caseloads driven by rising populations, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to further frustrate court backlogs. As the old maxim goes: “justice delayed is justice denied.”
On July 29, 2021, U.S. Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced legislation to add 77 new federal district judges across the country to help solve the growing litigation backlog. The bill is cleverly titled the “Judicial Understaffing Delays Getting Emergencies Solved (JUDGES) Act,” and specifically targets the most overburdened federal district courts with the highest weighted caseloads per judgeship. More than half of the new judgeships would be allocated to California, Texas, and Florida. The bill is in direct response to a March 2021 proposal from the Judicial Conference of the United States (a policymaking group of federal judges from courts around the country led by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts), and only diverges from that proposal by rejecting its recommendation for additional appellate court seats. If passed into law, this would be the first comprehensive expansion of the federal judiciary since the Judicial Improvements Act of 1990.
The JUDGES Act was introduced as S. 2535 in the 117th Congress and is currently pending in Senate Committee on the Judiciary.
What is a federal district judge?
United States district judges are the trial court judges in the federal court system. They preside over a United States District Court that sits over a geographical territory usually consisting of multiple counties (and sometimes an entire state or territory). Each district court has multiple district judges whom all exercise the same powers of the court, but share the case load according to random assignments. Unlike state court judges or federal magistrate and bankruptcy judges, federal district judges are nominated by the President of the United States and must be confirmed by the Senate, after which they hold their bench for life (or until they retire).
How many federal district judges currently exist?
There are currently 94 U.S. district courts (each state has between one and four district courts, and there are two more for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico). There are currently 677 district judgeships authorized for those courts, including several temporary judgeships. But not every one of these seats is presently filled, as there are numerous vacancies across the country caused by judges who have retired, taken “senior status,” or passed away while in office.
Which federal districts would get new judges?
The 77 proposed new judgeships would be divided among the busiest district courts with the highest weighted caseloads. Courts affected include the Northern District of Alabama, District of Arizona, Northern District of California, Central District of California, Eastern District of California, Southern District of California, District of Colorado, District of Delaware, Northern District of Florida, Middle District of Florida, Southern District of Florida, Northern District of Georgia, District of Idaho, Southern District of Indiana, Northern District of Iowa, District of Kansas, Eastern District of Missouri, District of New Jersey, District of New Mexico, Eastern District of New York, Southern District of New York, Western District of New York, Western District of North Carolina, Eastern District of Texas, Southern District of Texas, and Western District of Texas.
The last time that new judgeships were added to any of these districts was 2002, and many of them have not seen a new seat added since 1990. Some have waited even longer. For example, the Eastern District of California has not had a new district judgeship added to its court since 1978.
In Texas specifically, the Western District would receive six new district judges, the Southern District would receive 4, and the Eastern District would receive 3 (including the conversion of a temporary judgeship in the Eastern District to a permanent seat).
What about partisanship and “court packing” concerns?
While so many new life-tenured federal judges naturally raise concerns about court packing, the JUDGES Act specifically attempts to address those concerns by spreading the new seats out over time. Roughly half of the new judgeships would be created in 2025—after the next presidential election—with the other half coming in 2029 after an additional election cycle.