Federal court officials for decades have asked Congress to add judges to overworked district courts that are most used by the public — and now they say a Supreme Court decision from 2020 has created a need for even more.
Congress hasn’t approved reinforcements to the nation’s lower courts in a comprehensive way since 1990. There are signs of traction for an effort to change that this year, with bipartisan legislation introduced in the House and Senate that would create 77 new district court judgeships based on a report from the U.S. Judicial Conference on where help is most needed.
On Tuesday, the Judicial Conference announced it has now recommended that Congress add another five judges on top of that for Oklahoma, where the number of criminal cases skyrocketed in the year after the Supreme Court’s ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma.
In that ruling, the justices found that prosecutions of Native Americans in the eastern part of the state should be handled by federal instead of state courts. That caused the number of criminal cases to increase from 76 per judge to 277 as of June in the Eastern District of Oklahoma, and from 70 to 208 per judge in the Northern District of Oklahoma, the Judicial Conference said.
The idea of adding judges to the district courts generally has bipartisan backing. Problems are mounting in the district courts, where the public interacts most with the federal legal system through civil lawsuits, criminal charges, jury service and more.
The need is particularly acute now in Oklahoma, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic also stopped trials and added to the backlog. U.S. District Judge Claire V. Eagan, the chair of the Judicial Conference’s executive committee and a judge for the Northern District of Oklahoma, said federal judges there reached out to ask for judges to come from other parts of the country to handle cases.
“And, of course, our colleagues are going to step up to the plate and assist us,” Eagan said. “The assistance that we need right now is in trying criminal jury trials.”
One visiting judge handled two criminal trials. Another is arriving this week for a trial. Around 10 other judges have volunteered to come in November through January.
“And we’re going to put out a request, hopefully in the next few days, nationally for visiting judges to commit to come,” Eagan said. “And so we’re going to set up in effect a dashboard for visiting judges to sign up for date certain to come help us.”
In the Senate, Indiana Republican Todd Young and Delaware Democrat Chris Coons introduced a bill in July to add district court judges. In the House, California Republican Darrell Issa introduced a version along with Indiana Republican Victoria Spartz and California Democrats Juan C. Vargas and Scott Peters.
But proposals to add judges face familiar hurdles to those efforts that fell short in previous years. That includes concerns about which president would pick those judges, the roughly $1 million annual cost each new judgeship would bring, and whether any measure should make bigger changes, particularly restructuring the sprawling U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
And that issue could also take a back seat to more pressing high-profile concerns.
Congress has added a relatively smaller number of district court judgeships since 1990, created through appropriations or authorization bills, but the federal courts say they need much more based on an increase in caseload over the years.
The McGirt decision has also caused fallout for spending concerns in Congress related to the Justice Department and tribal authorities. The Biden administration sought about $34 million in additional funds related to the decision for fiscal 2022, such as the FBI request of $25.5 million for “increased responsibilities” because of that decision.