Article III of the Constitution says this: “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” I’m sure by leaving Congress the job of “ordaining and establishing” our federal courts, the Framers had good intentions. But they clearly couldn’t have imagined what a mess Congress would make of this job, especially when led by folks so loathing of the federal government that they won’t even fund their own food safety laws (for example). (It goes back a long way.)
Let’s begin with overcrowding. The Wall Street Journal has a story today about how civil cases “are piling up in some of the nation’s federal courts, leading to long delays in cases involving Social Security benefits, personal injury and civil rights, among others.”
More than 330,000 such cases were pending as of last October—a record—up nearly 20% since 2004, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The number of cases awaiting resolution for three years or more exceeded 30,000 for the fifth time in the past decade. …
The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases. But the Sixth Amendment gives people in criminal cases the right to a “speedy” trial. The upshot: Criminal cases often displace and delay civil disputes, creating a backlog.
“Over the years I’ve received several letters from people indicating, ‘Even if I win this case now, my business has failed because of the delay. How is this justice?’ ” said Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill in Fresno, Calif., who sits in the Eastern District. “And the simple answer, which I cannot give them, is this: It is not justice. We know it.”
Here’s one big problem: judicial vacancies. In March, the Alliance for Justice published a new report about this ongoing problem, writing:
The process of confirming federal judges has ground to a standstill since Republicans took control of the Senate, delaying justice for millions of Americans, according to a new report from Alliance for Justice. The report comes one day after the Wall Street Journal editorialized that Senate Republicans should refuse to fill circuit court vacancies, meaning that “[i]n 2017 a Republican president would . . . have more judicial openings to fill.”
“There have been no judicial confirmations in the Republican-controlled Senate despite a near doubling of judicial emergencies since January,” said AFJ President Nan Aron. “This delay means that important vacancies remain unfilled and justice goes unserved for millions of Americans. And it appears to be part of a political strategy to leave these seats open, no matter the cost.”
Yet, writes the Wall Street Journal quoting Paul Gordon, senior legislative counsel for People for the American Way, “If every single vacancy were filled by this afternoon, that still wouldn’t be enough to get the work done.”
I’d like to offer one particular reason for this overcrowding problem, which the Journal doesn’t examine. Many in Congress, despite professed hatred for all things federal, can’t stop proposing and occasionally even passing laws that dump state civil cases into federal courts - cases that have no business being in federal court. Take the 2005 “Class Action Fairness Act.” We’ve written a lot about this dumb law:
The so-called federal “Class Action Fairness Act” … tosses (“removes”) into federal court virtually all big consumer class actions, clogging the federal courts and creating unnecessary nightmares for federal judges. Every consumer, environmental and civil rights group was against CAFA, as well as many state Attorneys General.
But OK, Congress passed the law. And by the specific language of the law, Congress instituted a $5 million threshold - the amount in controversy must exceed $5 million. This is supposed to be satisfied by what the named plaintiff in the case pleads when the action is filed. Congress could have gone lower, but it didn’t.
Well now, Big Business wants Congress to indeed go lower - to no threshold at all. And they want to make it easier in other ways to dump even more state class actions into the federal court system.
Others in Congress have had equally dumb ideas, like the so-called “Saving Lives, Saving Costs” Act. As consumer and patients groups explained, this bill would,
[G]ive hospitals, doctors and insurers as well as nursing homes and long-term care facilities – again, not patients – the power to remove a medical negligence case to federal court. Even aside from the discriminatory nature of this provision, it is terrible policy. Cases involving medical negligence and patient harm have absolutely no business clogging the federal court system – a system now struggling with severe budget cuts due to the sequester.
Here’s another example: S. 106, from extreme federal critic, Sen. Vitter (R-LA). His bill would “allow a defendant to remove from a state court to the U.S. district court a civil action involving a claim of environmental contamination that impacts or threatens to impact waters of the United States.”
I’m sure if we looked, there’d be many more like this. Just ridiculous.