Which Judges Juggle the Most Civil Cases?
New TRAC Update Reveals Answers
Billy Roy Wilson of the Eastern District of Arkansas closed 3,008 civil cases in the twelve-month period ending June 30, 2014 — more than any other federal district court judge in the country — according to the latest data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
Wilson's 3,008 closures, however, are difficult to compare to other judges. This is because of a special court procedure in which very similar cases from more than one district are sometimes bundled into "multidistrict litigation" (MDL). These bundles of similar cases are then assigned to a single judge to rule on the common questions of law embedded in the cases.
The MDL matters assigned to Wilson involve lawsuits filed by plaintiffs from all over the country against Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Corp. The plaintiffs claim they have been injured by the drug Prempro, a mixture of estrogen and progesterone, according to court documents. In total, 9,761 of these matters were put together for Wilson's consideration. As of Oct. 15, only 61 remained unresolved, according to the Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation. Wilson's law clerk, Matt Morgan, said there were 32 cases from the MDL still under Wilson's purview as of Oct. 21. He added that those cases had been settled, but were still technically open as they awaited various approvals.
On Wilson's heels for the most closed cases are three other judges handling multidistrict litigation: Alabama North's Inge P. Johnson (2,619 closures), Illinois South's David R. Herndon (2,307) and Minnesota's John R. Tunheim (1,878).
Excluding the judges who were assigned large numbers of cases as the result of MDL bundling, Arizona District Chief Judge Raner C. Collins closed the most cases (1,368) in the year ending June 30. Part of the reason for Collins' productivity may be related to the type of case Collins tends to hear — 95.2 percent of the cases he closed were prisoner petitions. That is a significantly higher mix than the average judge in his district (69.3%) and in the country, for whom about a quarter (23.4%) of closed cases comprise prisoner petitions.
Collins said that the bulk of the cases were filed by a single prisoner in Arizona:"My closings look more impressive than they should as most of them come from one prisoner who filed more than 2,000 cases by himself," Collins said. "I had an excellent pro se law clerk who helped process those cases. So regardless of the numbers, I do not believe I am the hardest working judge in the country. I am sure I am not."
A different kind of window into the operation of the courts can be viewed by examining per-judge workloads by the case-weighting system developed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC). This complex system tries to take into account the fact that some kinds of cases are more difficult and time consuming than others. Even when these varying weights are considered, Collins has still closed a lot of cases, almost three times more than the average federal district court judge.
However, under the case-weighting system, Collins would no longer have the most non-MDL closures, with that distinction going to Texas East's James "Rodney" Gilstrap with 4,418 closures. In fact, even with MDL judges such as Wilson in the mix, Gilstrap has closed more weighted cases than anyone else.
The above statistics are a small percentage of the findings that can be generated using the civil court data tool that is part of TRAC's Judge Information Center. The free public tool (located at http://tracfed.syr.edu/judges/interp/civjdglist.html) allows anyone to discover exactly how many cases a federal district court judge has pending as of the last data update, as well as how many he or she has closed in the past year.
The tool provides statistics on all federal district court judges who have handled at least 50 cases — 950 judges as of the most recently update. Additional detailed information on each judge, including their processing times for various types of cases, is available to subscribers. The data underlying the tool, updated quarterly, come from data mining PACER, from the AOUSC and from a series of FOIA lawsuits brought against several divisions of the Justice Department.
Other findings from the most recent update include:
- When the number of pending cases — rather than cases disposed of — are considered, Judge Joseph Robert Goodwin of West Virginia South is number one in the nation with a whopping 60,832! Goodwin's caseload, however, is another instance of many cases being bundled into a few. Goodwin is overseeing seven MDL cases, all of which deal with product liability litigation against a series of medical product companies that make pelvic repair system products, according to court records and the Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation.
- Civil cases are only part the workload of federal judges, who also preside over criminal cases involving alleged violations of federal law. In seeking to quantify a typical judge's workload, TRAC developed a measure that excludes judges with large MDL caseloads and that applies the case-weights developed by the AOUSC. By this measure, the average full-time equivalent judge had 303 weighted civil cases pending in June 30 and 85 criminal cases for an average caseload of 388 cases per full-time judge.
- The table below looks at the number of pending civil cases of each type being handled in the district courts, along with the judge with the most cases of that type as of June 30, 2014. It is important to note that pending cases are not a measure of a judge's ability to process cases efficiently. Caseloads can vary significantly over time, especially when MDL or other special procedures are involved. Additionally, these numbers represent a snapshot of pending caseloads at a specific moment in time — in this case, June 30.
In addition to the civil tool on which the numbers in this TRAC Report are based, the Judge Information Center includes tools that allow users to examine the sentencing practices of the district court judges on criminal matters, as well as asylum denial rates for administrative Immigration Court judges.
TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center at the Whitman School of Management and Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.