As Workloads Rise in Federal Courts,
Judge Counts Remain Flat

Civil and criminal filings in the federal district courts are substantially higher than they were 20 years ago — rising 28 percent since FY 1993.

But the number of federal judges provided by Congress to handle these filings has barely changed, growing by only 4 percent in the same two-decade period.

As a consequence, the time required for handling both civil and criminal cases has increased.

Since the growth in incoming federal matters varies greatly in different parts of the country, the resulting workloads for the judges also vary widely. In some districts, for example, the per-judge workload is now four times heavier than the average for the nation.

These findings by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University are based on an extensive study of information drawn from two major sources. One is the complex statistical information developed over the years by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The second is TRAC's first-ever systematic analysis of hundreds of thousands of case-by-case court and administrative records from every federal judicial district in the nation.

As noted above, an important result of the growing imbalance between the workloads and judges is that the time required to deal with federal cases, particularly civil matters, is up. Here is one measure: The time from when a civil matter is filed to when it is scheduled for trial has grown by 63 percent in the last 20 years, from 16 months in FY 1993 to 26 months in FY 2013 (see Table 1).

Table 1. Judgeships, Workload and Increasing Wait Times
FY 1993 FY 2003 FY 2013 FY 2013
vs FY 1993
Judgeships 649 680 677 4%
Criminal and Civil Combined Workload:
Filings 275,323 323,604 353,522 28%
Median Months:
Criminal Felony to Disposition 6.3 6.7 7.3 16%
Civil Filing to Trial 16.0 22.5 26.1 63%
Source: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts federal judicial caseload and management statistics

For civil matters, the substantially higher workloads and increased processing times have major economic and social consequences. This is because the federal courts frequently serve as the essential referee in resolving a large number of important economic and social conflicts. The legal struggles here involve a wide range of filers, from giant corporations and mom-and-pop businesses trying to resolve their disputes, to public interest groups pressing the government to act on important public issues, to civil rights organizations fighting for a more just society.

But in addition to all the contending private parties, civil litigation is also central to the federal government. In some circumstances, the government is the plaintiff when it uses its civil authority for many different purposes, whether enforcing environmental laws against polluters or cracking down on fraudulent drug manufacturers. The federal government also can be the defendant, for example when a private party feels the government is improperly using its powers.

By comparison, the growth in processing times for criminal cases is considerably less, increasing by 16 percent. This measure is based on the growth in time between when an individual is charged with a felony until final disposition. Although this change is comparatively small, the damage to the broad goal of equal justice before the law that is guaranteed to all Americans by the Constitution is nevertheless vitally important.

Court administrators have made repeated requests to Congress for funds to increase the number of federal judgeships. The imbalance between the increasing flow of matters presented to the courts and the number of working judges and staff has also been a concern of Chief Justice John Roberts for many years. In his year-end report for 2013, Judge Roberts said that the "budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts."

Meanwhile, Congress has allowed the number of authorized judgeships to fall, from 680 in FY 2003 to 677 in FY 2013.

Those numbers understate the problem as Congressional inaction on disputed nominations, along with other factors, means that the actual number of full-time judges is less than the count of authorized judgeships. During the last decade, full-time judges fell from 643 to 612, according to TRAC's analysis of the U.S. District Court data[1].

As already noted, mounting caseloads have already led to different delays in the disposal of the matters presented to the courts. While Constitutional guarantees of a speedy trial mean that judges have understandably focused on minimizing the increases in criminal matters, the slowing of the ability of the courts to resolve complex civil litigation has far reaching economic and social consequences.

District Caseloads Vary Significantly

Increasing workload imbalance is felt much more keenly in some locations than others (see Table 2). Because the basic composition of incoming civil and criminal cases reaching the judges in each district is naturally varied, finding a way to fairly compare the incoming workloads presented to a judge serving in San Francisco with the judges serving in Houston, Chicago or Las Vegas presents a challenge.

Court managers assisted by the Federal Judicial Center, however, have devised a complex case "weighting" system for all the matters flowing into the federal district court system[2]. Their goal: find a fair way to measure the actual time demands on judges serving in different districts where the mix of cases differs. The system is based on the actual measurement of judge time[3].

TRAC's analysis uses these case weights, along with measures of court filings relative to the availability of sitting judges, to give the most accurate picture of workload per judge and per district available[4].

Table 2. Variation in Judge Caseloads Among Districts
(for the 12 Month Period ending June 30, 2014)
(Click column header to sort, click table title to open in new window)
Judicial 
District 
Weighted Filings per
Full-Time Equivalent Judge*
Ranks
Civil  Criminal  Combined  Civil  Criminal  Combined 
US Average 303 85 388
Ala, M 309 71 380 27 40 29
Ala, N 224 46 270 51 66 62
Ala, S 162 103 265 74 26 65
Alaska 80 64 145 90 50 91
Arizona 379 347 725 14 2 3
Ark, E 244 70 314 42 43 41
Ark, W 183 71 254 66 40 72
Cal, C 477 28 505 8 84 15
Cal, E 527 111 638 3 22 5
Cal, N 270 41 311 32 74 42
Cal, S 264 259 523 36 5 13
Colorado 291 63 355 30 53 34
Conn 242 57 299 43 54 47
D. C. 153 17 171 76 91 86
Delaware 1423 23 1446 1 89 2
Fla, M 459 71 530 9 40 11
Fla, N 348 54 402 18 57 25
Fla, S 523 144 667 5 13 4
Ga, M 228 83 310 49 32 43
Ga, N 425 44 469 11 68 17
Ga, S 242 28 270 43 84 62
Hawaii 153 88 241 76 31 80
Idaho 179 127 306 67 16 45
Ill, C 231 51 282 48 59 57
Ill, N 358 31 389 16 82 26
Ill, S 363 124 487 15 17 16
Ind, N 188 50 238 63 62 81
Ind, S 522 66 587 6 48 7
Iowa, N 111 168 279 83 8 58
Iowa, S 128 27 156 80 86 89
Kansas 156 188 345 75 7 36
Ken, E 164 108 271 73 24 61
Ken, W 331 81 412 21 37 23
La, E 225 30 256 50 83 70
La, M 256 42 298 38 72 48
La, W 167 26 193 72 88 83
Maine 102 44 146 85 68 90
Maryland 314 65 379 26 49 30
Mass 254 35 289 40 79 54
Mich, E 208 46 255 56 66 71
Mich, W 297 81 378 28 37 31
Minnesota 357 32 389 17 80 26
Miss, N 202 44 246 58 68 78
Miss, S 254 49 303 40 64 46
Mo, E 202 92 294 59 29 51
Mo, W 192 115 307 60 20 44
Montana 237 151 388 46 11 28
N Car, E 327 128 455 22 15 19
N Car, M 210 42 253 55 72 74
N Car, W 186 133 319 64 14 38
N Dakota 101 161 262 86 9 66
N Mexico 111 256 367 83 6 33
N. J. 491 38 529 7 77 12
N. Y., E 392 38 431 13 77 21
N. Y., N 268 51 318 34 59 39
N. Y., S 294 39 332 29 75 37
N. Y., W 316 95 412 25 27 23
Nebraska 140 114 254 79 21 73
Nevada 457 51 508 10 59 14
New Hamp 125 43 168 81 71 87
Ohio, N 222 64 286 52 50 55
Ohio, S 239 47 286 45 65 55
Okla, E 192 55 247 60 55 77
Okla, N 179 67 246 67 46 78
Okla, W 205 54 260 57 57 67
Oregon 178 70 248 69 43 76
Penn, E 259 32 291 37 80 53
Penn, M 269 27 296 33 86 50
Penn, W 235 39 273 47 75 60
Puerto Rico 91 348 439 89 1 20
R. I. 189 69 258 62 45 69
S Car 277 20 297 31 90 49
S Dakota 73 90 163 91 30 88
Tenn, E 340 121 461 20 18 18
Tenn, M 523 50 573 4 62 9
Tenn, W 148 111 259 78 22 68
Texas, E 1350 161 1510 2 9 1
Texas, N 416 116 532 12 19 10
Texas, S 318 268 586 23 4 8
Texas, W 267 330 597 35 3 6
Utah 184 83 267 65 32 64
Vermont 93 82 175 88 35 85
Virg, E 219 73 292 53 39 52
Virg, W 169 82 251 71 35 75
W Virg, N 171 147 318 70 12 39
W Virg, S 212 64 276 54 50 59
Wash, E 117 108 225 82 24 82
Wash, W 317 55 372 24 55 32
Wisc, E 255 94 348 39 28 35
Wisc, W 346 67 413 19 46 22
Wyoming 99 83 182 87 32 84
* See Civil Cases in District Court: About the Data for further details on how these indices were developed.

In 2013, the total average burden of weighted incoming civil and criminal cases assigned per district court judge serving anywhere in the nation was 364 matters. This total included 270 civil cases and 94 criminal cases. For a more recent period from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014, the number of incoming matters per judge was 388: 303 civil and 85 criminal.

Examined on a district-by-district basis, the averages were far from uniform. Here, for example, are the average incoming workloads for judges serving in four districts in different parts of the country, each with large cities within its boundaries.

Under federal law, all sitting district court judges are nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress to serve in a specific district, so court administrators can't simply move judges from less busy courts to those with larger numbers of weighted cases. Judges who have retired from the bench do serve as volunteer judges in many districts, and where resources permit, additional U.S. magistrate judges can be appointed in a district to assist district court judges. But even after taking these sources of assistance into consideration, use of the court's sophisticated counting procedures show that the load of incoming weighted civil and criminal cases is far heavier in some districts than in others.

Implications of Varying Caseloads

The variable judge-by-judge caseloads in the four districts noted above is hardly unusual. In fact, as is shown in Table 2 and described in greater detail below, the differences in the incoming cases presented to the judges can be even more extreme[5].

The district court judges in the Eastern District of Texas, six regular and one senior, had the highest workloads in the country, with an average of 1,510 weighted incoming civil and criminal matters per judge in the year preceding June 30, 2014, the most recent date for which records are available. The district with the second highest per-judge average number of weighted cases in the nation was Delaware, where the four district judges had an average of 1,446 weighted cases per FTE.

An important factor in the heavy workloads carried by the judges in these two districts is their popularity as venues for filing patent lawsuits. By combing fiscal years 2013 and 2014 (through June), TRAC has determined that the largely rural Texas East district was the top venue for patent cases, with 2,804 filings. Delaware was second with 2,335. Combined, 47 percent of patent cases for the past two years were brought in one of these two venues. Explanations for why these districts attract so many patent cases vary, and include the large number of companies incorporated in Delaware and rules developed in Texas East to help move patent cases toward resolution faster. It is unclear whether, on average, such cases are processed more quickly in these districts[6].

Under the weighting system, patent cases are considered among the most demanding, which raises a key caveat and two important questions. The caveat: Under the weighting system, Texas East judges are credited with an unusually high caseload for these highly complex cases, but if they are resolving them more quickly than the average court, it may not reflect their actual workloads. The questions: Are these "rocket docket" procedures producing fair, just and well-reasoned results? And if so, why aren't they being adopted elsewhere?

Rounding out the top five districts with the highest average per-judge workloads in the country are Arizona, Florida South and California East. Because the demographic, regulatory and criminal enforcement characteristics differ in each judicial district, the possible explanations for the very high ranking of these districts are also varied.

But one obvious aspect of Arizona's third-place ranking is its border with Mexico. As a result of this geographic reality and the concentration of Border Patrol (BP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials along the border, Arizona had one of the highest numbers of immigration prosecutions in the nation.

TRAC's analysis of weighted caseloads yielded several surprises; consider the Southern District of New York. Perhaps because Wall Street is the home of so many of the nation's major corporations and Hollywood has filmed many gangster movies in the city, "New York South" has long been regarded as the most important and busiest district in the nation. Yet New York South's 28 regular and 22 senior judges collectively rank 37th in the nation in terms of number of weighted criminal and civil matters they handle, and only 75th when looking solely at criminal cases.

Also surprising was the average workload of incoming weighted cases for the 14 regular and six senior judges in the District of Columbia. Again in terms of weighted matters, the data indicate that the workload for both civil and criminal matters for the regular judges in the nation's capital was among the lightest, ranking 86th among the districts.

These last two comparisons for New York South and Washington, D.C. reveal another limitation in the court's weighting scheme. Weights are based on the national average for the times taken by different types of cases — for example, securities fraud or money laundering. If, however, the most important and difficult securities fraud or money laundering cases were filed in either of these cities, then even the sophisticated weighted case system developed by the courts to calculate workloads may still be quite imperfect. Thus, to the extent the larger and more complex cases of a given type concentrate in certain districts, even the weighted numbers can significantly understate the actual workload of a given court.

Creation of New Judgeships

The flow of incoming civil and criminal matters is largely controlled by outside forces, which are difficult for the managers in the federal districts to anticipate. The crux of the problem is that while the average judicial workload in the districts is varied and dynamic, the number of judgeships that Congress has established in each district is extremely rigid. Every two years, the courts submit to the Senate a list recommending that it authorize the creation of additional judgeships in a relatively small number of districts. The courts developed the case-weighting system in part to help them with the task of deciding which districts were most seriously in need of new judgeships.

In 2013 the chairman of the Judicial Conference's committee on resources recommended that Congress establish 65 new permanent judgeships and 20 new temporary judgeships at the district court level. It also recommended that eight temporary judgeships[7] be converted to permanent. That request is still pending.

TRAC's analysis finds that this current request from the judiciary to Congress seeks to create judgeships in districts that, for the most part, ranked as having higher-than-average weighted caseloads. And with the civil and criminal caseloads tools developed by TRAC, it is now possible for the public to examine the proposed location of the new judgeships in relation to the average workloads of the judges in them.

Nineteen of the 25 districts where new permanent judgeships are being sought had higher than average caseloads in 2013. Those 19 districts also account for 53 of the 65 permanent judgeships being requested. Additionally, all 25 of the districts were above the median workload in 2013. Not all of the new judgeships asked for by the courts make sense based strictly in terms of TRAC's weighted caseload measure, however. The judiciary did not recommend new judgeships in a few districts that were quite busy in 2013, such as Tennessee East and North Carolina East. Meanwhile, court officials are seeking five new permanent judgeships in California North, which had an average caseload in 2013. However, there are other legitimate factors that naturally go into the recommendations given the imperfections and challenges in developing an ideal case-weighting system.

Conclusion

Unmeasured in all of the shifting data are possible changes in the basic quality of the decisions made and the provision of due process to the American people. These fundamental questions are by their nature difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Some of these questions include:

Taken alone, TRAC's new judge-by-judge, case-by-case database for all federal criminal and civil cases cannot answer these crucial questions. But it provides a key element that savvy journalists, political science researchers and law schools can use to explore questions at the center of the nation's efforts to insure due process and an improved functioning of the judiciary.

There are many questions the data can directly answer. For example, the database provides lawyers with a new tool to help them best advise their clients, and policy makers with new insights into the outcomes current policies generate. The variables in the TRAC dataset are central to any cost-benefit analysis concerning the federal judiciary.

In this report, we used the database to examine the growth of caseloads and disposition times, and the differences in those times from judge-to-judge and district-to-district. It is clear from the analysis that federal courts in America are experiencing unprecedented pressure due to increased filings and stagnant resources. The end result is that the federal courts are taking significantly longer to adjudicate both civil and criminal disputes, an outcome that has important social, economic and justice implications for the nation.


Footnotes

[1] The data at http://www.uscourts.gov/Statistics/FederalCourtManagementStatistics.aspx provides both the number of authorized judgeships and total amount of time any of those judgeships were vacant during any given year, allowing TRAC to generate this number.

[2] Federal Judicial Center 20032004 District Court Case-Weighting Study (http://www.fjc.gov/public/home.nsf/pages/665).

[3] The 2003-2004 District Court Case-Weighting Study that developed these weights can be found at http://1.usa.gov/1r3FSGU. The weights from the study are still in use by the judiciary, but it should be noted that measurements of judge time on which they are based are over a decade old and may not reflect current time requirements.

[4] The AOUSC focuses on incoming workload per "judgeship." TRAC's analysis has standardized workload based upon actual sitting judges, rather than judgeships which are not always filled. In developing the measure of average incoming caseloads per full-time equivalent judge available in any district over a 12 month period, TRAC takes into consideration the work of senior judges, as well as cases assigned to U.S. magistrate judges and any visiting judges, by isolating the caseloads being handled by regular district court judges. For simplicity, we use the shortened phrases "per judge" and "per full-time judge" interchangeably with the more complete descriptor "per full-time equivalent sitting district court judge." For additional details on how this measure was calculated see Civil Cases in District Court: About the Data.

[5] Unlike the Supreme Court, the individual district courts have almost no control over the total number of matters they must deal with. For the most part, incoming civil cases are dealt with by the judges in the districts where they filed. Even more so for criminal matters, special Constitutional and legal pressures require that the judges in each district promptly act on the prosecutions brought before them.

[6] Yale Journal of Law and Technology on the rise of Texas East (http://bit.ly/1vynZoh); SMU Science & Technology Law Review article looks at the myth and reality behind factors driving patent cases to Texas East (http://bit.ly/1CHFtCN); Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal article examines changes in the law that have shifted some patent case filings from Texas East to Delaware (http://bit.ly/1yAZtZ4); American Intellectual Property Law Association Journal article that empirically analyses the best places to file patent suits (http://stanford.io/1BCke2R).

[7] With the exception of judges serving in U.S. territories, District Court judges are Article III judges with lifetime appointments, even when they are placed in a "temporary judgeship." In this case, "temporary" means the position is temporary, and that when any judge in that district retires, the judgeship goes away and can't be refilled unless Congress re-authorizes the position.