Senior Judges Heavily Relied on to Keep Ninth Circuit Running, Newspaper Says

March 14, 2011
Federal courts struggling with rising vacancies and caseloads have increasingly turned to their senior judges to keep the wheels of justice from grinding to a complete halt. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, however, may be an extreme case, where it has put a "third of the legal load" on the vast majority of its 19 senior judges in order to keep courthouse doors open, the Los Angeles Times reports.

And the newspaper notes that most of those senior judges are in their 80s. Judge Betty Fletcher, 88, "retired a dozen years ago yet still works full time, on what is known as senior status," for the Ninth Circuit courts, which have "had no new judgeships added in 21 years and that have declining numbers of active judges because of partisan posturing in Congress."

Judge Dorothy W. Nelson, 82, has carried 75 percent of the federal circuit's caseload, according to the newspaper, and took senior status 16 years ago.

"I feel a responsibility to the litigants," Nelson told the newspaper. "The courts are not for the judges, and they are not for the lawyers. They are for the people who have real grievances that need to be heard."

The Ninth Circuit's clerk Molly Dwyer said, "We'd be sunk without them."

The situation may not quickly improve. The Los Angeles Times, citing the Brooking Institution's Russell Wheeler, noted the "alarming trend of lengthening times between when a vacancy occurs and when it is filled." For example, the newspaper noted that the nomination of UC Berkeley law school professor Goodwin Liu to fill a vacant seat on the Ninth Circuit has been mired in the Senate for more than a year "with no confirmation vote in sight."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has consistently urged Republicans to stop obstructing the judicial nominations process, saying at one point, "There is no good reason to hold up consideration for weeks and months of nominees reported unanimously from the Judiciary Committee."

ACS sent to Senate leaders a letter from former federal court judges, appointed by both Democratic and Republican administrations, urging an end to the obstruction. "At this moment, our courts are overburdened and increasingly certain vacancies are being designated as ‘emergencies' by the Administrative Office of the Courts because of the length of time the court has been without a judge," the letter stated in part. "This situation is untenable for a country that believes in the rule of law."

To follow the rising number of vacancies on the federal bench and news on judicial nominations, visit ACS's