As Congress goes home, 60 judgeships sit empty

Sonia Sotomayor was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in 2009, but backlogs plague the federal judiciary. The Senate needs to confirm qualified nominees.
Sonia Sotomayor was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in 2009, but backlogs plague the federal judiciary. The Senate needs to confirm qualified nominees. AP

Many of us are going home for the holidays. So too are members of Congress. They have fewer than 10 working days to handle the nation’s business before their long winter recess. One of Congress’s most pressing concerns should be to fulfill its constitutional role and fill the gaping vacancies on the federal bench.

While Congress travels home this holiday season, more than 60 seats are left vacant on the federal judiciary. With more than 400,000 cases filed in federal court each year, current judges must cover the gaps left by these open seats.

For nearly 30 judgeships, the burdens facing jurists are so great that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has declared a judicial emergency. The stress facing federal judges may have real-world consequences. A recent report in the Utah Law Review found that judicial emergencies had a significant effect on the disposition of cases. The study analyzed the decision-making of federal trial judges when their corresponding appeals court had declared a judicial emergency. According to the study, trial judges were as much as seven percent more likely to dismiss a case before trial if the corresponding appeals court was in a judicial emergency.

Two judicial emergencies have been declared here in the Carolinas. After Judge Cameron McGowan Currie took senior status in October 2013, the South Carolina federal courts have wrestled with a weighted caseload of more than 400 filings per judge. In North Carolina, Judge Malcolm J. Howard took senior status in 2005. Ten years have passed without a new federal judge in the the Eastern District of North Carolina – which spans from Granville to Brunswick Counties to the Albemarle. Current judges in the Eastern District must pick up the additional workload, and each Eastern District judge now has a weighted caseload of 609 cases.

This situation can and should be fixed. Qualified candidates await the Senate’s review. Just this year, the Senate confirmed 11 of these nominees, yet many still languish awaiting a vote.

The judiciary is one of the three branches that comprise our democracy. In Federalist Paper No. 78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the judiciary controlled neither the nation’s finances nor military might. We look to the judiciary for its judgment. The administration of justice should not be held up by political grandstanding.

Judicial nominees should be evaluated on their merits. To date, the American Bar Association’s Committee on the Federal Judiciary has rated each nominee in 2015 qualified or well qualified to serve as a federal judge. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already vetted numerous nominees, including Luis Felipe Restrepo and Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr., and reported favorably back to the full chamber. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is a member of the Judiciary Committee that reported favorably on Restrepo, Crenshaw and other qualified nominees.

The full Senate should evaluate, discuss and ultimately vote on judicial nominees. Crowded dockets can mean delays for those looking to the courts to resolve disputes and find justice. We should consider judicial nominees on their qualifications, not political calculations.

Tobin is a Harvard Law School student from Myrtle Beach, S.C. Email: ttobin@