By Anisha Singh and Pete Haviland-Eduah America’s broken criminal justice system has emerged as a pressing issue in the national consciousness. There is a growing bipartisan consensus that the system needs serious reform. During his visit to America, Pope Francis visited a prison and discussed national criminal justice issues from a faith perspective. In the same week, a moving documentary featuring the first visit by a sitting president to a federal prison. And yet, with all this focus on reforming our justice system, little attention is being paid to how federal judicial vacancies — which remain unfilled due to Senate obstruction — play into our broken criminal justice system.
Today, more than 80 current and future federal judicial seats are vacant and approximately 30 of those seats are considered judicial emergencies, nearly triple the number of emergency vacancies since Republicans took control of the Senate in January. This has led to the largest backlog of federal criminal and civil cases in American history, with some 330,000 civil cases currently pending. Wait times for federal cases are at an all-time high. In Pennsylvania, a state with seven vacancies, the average felony trial takes more than a year — nearly twice the national average. Put simply, the judicial vacancy crisis means that millions of Americans are not getting their day in court.
This injustice is the direct result of partisan gamesmanship. When a federal judicial vacancy opens up, the president nominates a replacement and sends him or her to the Senate for confirmation. While judicial confirmations are rarely seamless, the process has worked in the past, even when the president and Senate represent different political parties. But lately, those principles have been thrown out the window, replaced with an unprecedented degree of obstruction. The Senate this year is on track to confirm the fewest judicial nominees since 1953.
At the epicenter of this problem is Texas, a state with more than 12 percent of all federal judicial vacancies — including 23 percent of all judicial emergencies. Texas district court judges are highly overworked and justice is being significantly delayed for tens of thousands of people and businesses. In the Eastern District of Texas, the median wait time in a felony case from filing to conclusion is now a full year, up from 9.9 months in 2009, and nearly five months longer than the national average of 7.3 months.
One of the pillars of American democracy is the right to a speedy trial. But because of judicial vacancies, access to justice is being increasingly delayed and in some instances denied for far too many Americans. An increase in wait times for trials can lead to a complete abdication of justice, wherein accused criminals would rather take a plea than spend more time in jail waiting for trail, even when they did not commit the accused crime.
The judicial vacancy crisis also has serious implications for the appeals process. After being sentenced to death for the murder of three at a Houston bowling alley in 1980, Max Soffar continues to sit in death row as his appeals case slowly moves its way through the courts, delayed largely because of judicial vacancies. His attorneys, who have contributed nearly 20,000 pro bono hours collectively, are maintaining his innocence. Not only did Soffar implicate himself during an unrecorded interrogation that spanned three days, there is also no physical evidence tying him to the crime. A federal court reversed his conviction in 2004, citing ineffective counsel. Now Soffar is dying of liver cancer and by the time the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issues a decision on his case, he might already be dead.
Waiting on a trial can be extremely costly for a defendant. When a client is paying for an attorney — often paying rates hundreds of dollars an hour — extended wait times caused by judicial backlogs can easily translate into thousands of dollars of additional expenses over just a few months. Further, an individual could lose wages or their job while attending court proceedings, heightening the burden and economic stress.
Judicial vacancies are exacerbating our broken criminal justice system, impacting millions of Americans around the country. The record-high pileup of backlogged cases affects everyone in the process—families, crime victims, employees, consumers, and the defendants themselves. We must demand that the Senate put an end to this obstruction. If our elected leaders are serious about improving our justice system, they can start by filling these vacancies now.
Anisha Singh is the campaign manager for legal progress at the Center for American Progress. Pete Haviland-Eduah is a masters candidate at the Gerald R. Ford School for Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
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