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Remedying Resource Shortages in the U.S. District Courts: How the Courts Themselves Can Improve the Situation


Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008

The 94 United States District Courts around the nation periodically experience resource shortages - including vacancies among their 678 seats for active judges. The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado is the most recent district to suffer this fate.

Fortunately, however, there are numerous actions that the court can take to address the resource shortages and facilitate the prompt, inexpensive and fair resolution of cases. And in so doing, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado could become a strong model for other district courts that encounter similar problems.

The Situation in Colorado: Significant Understaffing Causes Case Delays

The situation in the U. S. District Court for the District of Colorado was exacerbated last month when Edward W. Nottingham announced that he was resigning, effective October 29. Nottingham had served nearly 20 years on the federal court and was the Chief Judge responsible for administering the district at the time.

The loss of this veteran jurist placed even greater pressure on the district, which had been functioning with vacancies in three of the seven judgeships authorized by Congress until September of this year, when the U.S. Senate confirmed Christine Arguello and Philip Brimmer. Now, for example, the 150 civil lawsuits pending before Nottingham must be reassigned to other judges. More specifically, civil suits filed last June will not be scheduled for trial until January 2010. As one member of the court trenchantly observed "we will continue to struggle along without a full complement of judges."

In late October, the U.S. District Court issued a statement praising Judge Nottingham for improving the district's technology and for "working tirelessly to ensure that his courtroom and case management practices were premised on the law and applied fairly to all." The court also announced that U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel would assume the duties of Chief Judge. Judge Daniel, whom President Bill Clinton appointed in 1995, is a highly-respected, seasoned jurist who has been actively involved in judicial administration and who is expected to felicitously discharge his responsibilities as chief judge. Yet his appointment alone cannot solve the systemic problems that currently exist in the district.

Any court that operates without almost half of its authorized judges will experience problems in deciding cases in a timely manner. The Colorado court faces three major challenges: Judge Nottingham's resignation; the fact that the court had three judgeships empty for a protracted time, causing case backlogs to increase; and the fact that Judges Arguello and Brimmer, although talented, have only recently assumed their judicial duties.

Criminal cases will still be tried fairly soon after indictment, for the Federal Speedy Trial Act mandates that accused defendants be prosecuted swiftly. But this means that civil lawsuits will require even greater time to resolve.

Possible Solutions: How the Docket Can Be Better Managed, With Fewer and Shorter Delays

Nonetheless, the circumstances may be less dire than they appear at first blush. For instance, the court could rely more on its own judicial resources. The district enjoys the services of five very experienced senior judges, several of whom now carry substantial caseloads, and these jurists can help move the docket. Chief Judge Daniel might concomitantly depend on the district's eight magistrate judges to assume larger roles by, for example, trying more civil cases with the parties' consent.

The Chief Judge may also draw on judicial resources outside the district. For instance, Judge Daniel might request that district judges from other courts temporarily help the district resolve its filings. There is a venerable tradition of federal judges assisting courts other than those to which they are assigned. For instance, Senior Judge Sam Conti of the Northern District of California has resolved many cases across the country and Senior Judge Justin Quackenbush, a member of the Eastern District of Washington, frequently hears cases in Nevada. Appellate judges, such as Ninth Circuit Judges Richard Tallman and Sidney Thomas, have recently tried district-court cases. Indeed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit's Senior Judge David Ebel is listed on the District of Colorado website.

Judge Daniel may also wish to consult other districts that have resolved large dockets with limited judicial resources. Examples include the U. S. District Courts in Arizona and Nevada, which are located in states that have encountered overwhelming growth. Judges and staff in those courts have a wealth of experience in deciding enormous caseloads with relatively few resources.

A final possibility for enhancing judicial resources would be the appointment of judges to fill the two vacancies. The Senate will probably not confirm Judge Nottingham's replacement before President-elect Obama takes office. Nonetheless, when the Senate returns for a post-election lame duck session, it could approve Gregory Goldberg, who was nominated at the same time as Judges Arguello and Brimmer.

In sum, Judge Nottingham's recent departure imposes greater pressure on a court that has long operated with deficient judicial resources. However, if Chief Judge Daniel relies on the talented judicial officers already in the district and seeks assistance from his colleagues in the remaining courts around the nation, the District of Colorado should soon be able to resolve its cases promptly, inexpensively and equitably while serving as a model for other courts that face similar difficulties.

Carl Tobias is the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

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