Within Courthouses and Across Country,
Striking Judge-to-Judge Differences
Found in Federal Criminal Caseloads

Based on extensive and very current data (through July 2012), an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) has found wide variations in the criminal caseloads of individual federal district court judges, in some instances even among the judges serving in the same courthouse.

The surprising extent of the variations documented in TRAC's study raises a series of concerns surrounding a rarely examined question: are there serious overall problems in the way the government as a whole is managing the federal prosecution of criminal cases?

TRAC's latest judge-by-judge analysis — using newly updated sentencing records on over 400,000 defendants[1] — followed the criminal caseloads of 909 federal district court judges for the past 70 months. See TRAC's Judge Info Center for a listing of the individual judges included in the study[2], along with the number of defendants each sentenced.

Among the 909 district court judges whose records were examined, however, about half had not actively served during the entire 70-month study period. Thus, in the interest of better comparability, this report focuses on the 430 judges who had actively served for the entire 70 months[3]. (For statistics on all 909 judges see Appendix Tables A and B.)

For these 430 active judges located in 179 courthouses across the country, this report discusses two particularly striking criminal caseload patterns that have emerged from TRAC's case-by-case data examination.

Surprising Variation in Criminal Caseloads Within Some Courthouses

As noted briefly above, even when the analysis was limited to the active judges who had served for the entire study period, the data disclosed surprising workload variations. In ninety separate courthouses there were two or more active judges, allowing for a comparison of the variation in caseloads within the courthouse. Among these ninety, there were four courthouses where the criminal caseload for one or more of the judges serving in them was twice the caseload of their colleague(s). The courthouses with this extreme judge-to-judge variation in caseload were located in very different regions of the country, mainly but not exclusively in major metropolitan areas:

  • Los Angeles (California Central)
  • Beaumont (Texas East)
  • Camden (New Jersey)
  • Manhattan (New York South)

For a broader perspective, Table 1 lists the 25 courthouses in the country with the largest judge-by-judge differences in their criminal caseloads. These ratios were calculated by comparing the judge who had sentenced the most defendants to the judge who had sentenced the fewest. Across the country, the data show that each judge sentenced an average of 615 defendants during the study period. (For a complete alphabetical listing of the number of criminal defendants sentenced by each district court judge, see this listing.)

Table 1. Top 25 Courthouses with Widest Variation in Criminal Caseload.
District Courthouse Rank # Active
# Sentenced Ratio
Lowest Highest
California Central Los Angeles 1 13 134 305 2.28
Texas East Beaumont 2 2 618 1,288 2.08
New Jersey Camden 3 4 119 243 2.04
New York South Manhattan 4 10 182 356 1.96
New York East Brooklyn 5 7 193 371 1.92
Virginia East Alexandria 6 2 490 935 1.91
West Virginia South Charleston 7 3 219 384 1.75
California South San Diego 8 8 1,286 2,151 1.67
Louisiana West Lafayette 9 2 147 234 1.59
New Mexico Santa Fe 10 2 636 1,007 1.58
Pennsylvania West Pittsburgh 11 6 194 299 1.54
Louisiana East New Orleans 12 10 183 275 1.50
California Central Santa Ana 13 4 282 419 1.49
New York East Central Islip 14 3 125 183 1.46
Texas North Dallas 15 7 266 385 1.45
California North Oakland 16 2 228 329 1.44
Michigan East Detroit 17 8 192 270 1.41
Minnesota Minneapolis 17 5 274 385 1.41
Pennsylvania East Philadelphia 19 10 165 230 1.39
Texas East Tyler 19 2 593 825 1.39
Puerto Rico Hato Rey 21 6 520 716 1.38
Illinois North Chicago 22 10 184 252 1.37
Massachusetts Boston 23 9 163 221 1.36
Florida Middle Tampa 24 5 532 713 1.34
Texas West McAllen 25 3 4,825 6,350 1.32
* Includes only judges who served the entire 70 months (Oct 2006 - July 2012) and had not retired. Excludes judges with workload split across two districts.

As demonstrated by the difference ratios in Table 1, the surprising variations seen in judge-to-judge criminal caseloads were not limited to a handful of districts.

Across all 90 courthouses, the average difference in criminal caseloads among judges was 29 percent, and the median or typical difference was 18 percent. Given the large number of defendants usually handled by each judge, such differences were unlikely to have arisen from chance variations in case assignments.

By way of contrast, however, there were quite a few districts in which the differences in criminal caseloads for the judges serving in the same courthouse were minimal. Table 2 lists the 25 courthouses with the smallest variation among the criminal caseloads of the judges. Most of these caseloads were within five percent. The top three — Brownsville (Texas South), El Paso (Texas West) and Providence (Rhode Island) were within one percent. Again, it is striking that judges in these courthouse shouldered very similar caseloads despite differences in locale or the magnitude of the criminal caseloads at that courthouse.

Table 2. Top 25 Courthouses with Smallest Variation in Criminal Caseload.
District Courthouse Rank # Active
# Sentenced Ratio
Lowest Highest
Texas South Brownsville 1 2 3,866 3,877 1.00
Texas West El Paso 2 3 4,759 4,830 1.01
Rhode Island Providence 2 2 395 398 1.01
New Hampshire Concord 4 2 411 421 1.02
Virginia East Norfolk 4 2 346 354 1.02
Missouri West Kansas City 4 2 512 522 1.02
Virginia East Richmond 4 2 590 601 1.02
Arkansas East Little Rock 8 2 410 424 1.03
Tennessee East Knoxville 8 2 490 506 1.03
South Carolina Florence 8 2 689 710 1.03
California North San Francisco 8 3 232 238 1.03
Florida Middle Orlando 8 2 391 401 1.03
Texas West Austin 13 2 1,606 1,675 1.04
Connecticut Bridgeport 13 2 227 236 1.04
Tennessee West Memphis 13 2 675 701 1.04
Oregon Portland 13 2 492 510 1.04
Delaware Wilmington 13 2 254 263 1.04
New York West Buffalo 18 2 1,163 1,226 1.05
Florida South West Palm Beach 19 2 792 843 1.06
Texas West San Antonio 19 3 1,438 1,530 1.06
Arizona Tucson 19 3 3,358 3,569 1.06
Tennessee Middle Nashville 22 3 413 443 1.07
Utah Salt Lake City 22 2 932 997 1.07
New Jersey Trenton 23 3 220 236 1.07
Texas North Fort Worth 25 2 656 708 1.08
Alabama South Mobile 25 3 648 699 1.08
Ohio South Columbus 25 4 305 328 1.08
* Includes only judges who served the entire 70 months (Oct 2006 - July 2012) and had not retired. Excludes judges with workload split across two districts.

In an effort to better understand the procedures by which criminal cases are assigned to judges, TRAC contacted court clerks in a sample of federal districts. While not all of the clerks contacted would speak with us, those that did uniformly indicated that while judges were randomly assigned by the court's computerized software system, adjustments were allowed in the "odds of selection" when directed by the chief judge in a district (or sometimes by an individual judge).

For example, if a retired (senior) judge wanted to handle about half the criminal caseload of active judges, the computer selection could be adjusted so that the odds that a case was randomly assigned to that judge would be set at one half[4]. Cases were still randomly assigned, TRAC was told, but the senior judge's turn would come up half as often. Such a system could therefore be utilized to adjust the criminal caseloads for even active judges without apparently altering the random nature of case assignments.

While the results in Table 1 exclude senior judges, there well may be other special circumstances that explain some of these caseload variations. While acknowledging that these differences do not by themselves indicate that a random assignment system was not being used[5], the relatively large number of offices with caseload variations, as well as the sheer size of some of these differences, were surprising and appear to raise complex and difficult management challenges for the federal court system.

The Sheer Volume of the Criminal Caseload in Some Federal Courthouses

There was also enormous variation in the volume of criminal cases a judge was required to handle that depended upon the courthouse at which the judge served. While on average active judges sentenced 615 defendants during the study period, this average caseload level varied from a low of 147 criminal defendants in the District of Columbia federal court to a high of 7,020 in the Las Cruces, New Mexico district courthouse.

Federal judges, however, handle both civil and criminal cases. Thus, having a low criminal caseload did not necessarily imply a judge's workload was lower since that courthouse might have a higher civil caseload[6].

But varying civil caseloads do not appear to explain the differences observed. According to the latest published statistics of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AOUSC), the weighted combined civil and criminal caseload per judgeship for the District of Columbia court was less than half the level of judges serving on the New Mexico district courts[7]. (It was true that the New Mexico court ranked third in the nation on criminal felony filings, while the D.C. court ranked 92nd. However, the New Mexico court ranked 84th on civil filings per judgeship, while the D.C. court ranked even lower — 86th.) Thus, at best only a portion of the differences observed in average criminal caseloads can be explained by differing civil caseloads at a given courthouse[8].

Table 3 lists the 25 courthouses that had the highest average number of criminal defendants per active judge. Topping the list as mentioned earlier was Las Cruces, New Mexico. Judge Robert C. Brack — the sole district court judge in Las Cruces — sentenced a total of 7,020 defendants during the 70 month study period. The McAllen courthouse in the Southern District of Texas ranked second with an average of 5,467 defendants sentenced for each of the three active judges serving there. The Midland courthouse in the Western District of Texas was ranked third with 4,810 defendants sentenced by Judge Robert A. Junell (the sole U.S. district court judge serving at Midland).

Table 3. Top 25 Courthouses with Highest Criminal Caseloads.
District Courthouse Rank # Active
Average #
New Mexico Las Cruces 1 1 7,020
Texas South McAllen 2 3 5,467
Texas West Midland 3 1 4,810
Texas West El Paso 4 3 4,791
Texas West Del Rio 5 1 4,693
Texas South Brownsville 6 2 3,872
Arizona Tucson 7 3 3,485
California South San Diego 8 8 1,940
Texas West Austin 9 2 1,641
Texas West Waco 10 1 1,522
Texas West San Antonio 11 3 1,482
Iowa North Cedar Rapids 12 1 1,383
Arizona Phoenix 13 6 1,366
Texas North Lubbock 14 1 1,321
New York West Buffalo 15 2 1,195
Nebraska Omaha 16 2 1,144
California East Fresno 17 1 1,124
Utah Salt Lake City 18 2 965
New Mexico Albuquerque 19 4 959
Texas East Beaumont 20 2 953
Texas East Sherman 21 1 930
North Carolina East New Bern 22 1 914
Tennessee West Jackson 23 1 893
Iowa North Sioux City 24 1 891
Tennessee East Greeneville 25 1 859
* Includes only judges who served the entire 70 months (Oct 2006 - July 2012) and had not retired. Excludes judges with workload split across two districts.

Southwest border courthouses have such high criminal caseloads because of the government's sharply increased emphasis on the criminal enforcement of immigration matters. While apprehensions along the southwest border haven't grown — indeed they generally have been falling for a decade or more — the onslaught of criminal immigration prosecutions that have engulfed federal district courts has occurred as a result of a policy shift to increase criminal prosecutions for illegal entry rather than use civil and administration procedures to remove and sanction individuals found to have illegally entered the U.S.

In fact, the top eleven ranked courthouses listed in Table 3 were all courthouses along the southwest border. After Las Cruces, McAllen, and Midland previously mentioned, in order of their ranking came the federal courthouses in: El Paso, Del Rio, Brownsville, Tucson, San Diego, Austin, Waco and San Antonio. See Table 3.

An overwhelming proportion of criminal defendants plead guilty. In this study period, for example, less than four percent of convictions for the nation as a whole were decided by a judge or jury after a court trial. While the large number of guilty pleas no doubt reduces the time requirements for handling these criminal caseloads, the sheer volume of defendants dealt with by individual judges nonetheless is astounding.

However, southwest border courthouses weren't the only ones with unusually heavy criminal caseloads per active judge. Cedar Rapids in the Northern District of Iowa was ranked 12th out of the 90 courthouses compared. Judge Linda R. Reade — the sole district judge at that location — actually handled a larger caseload (1,383) than the average caseload for judges in Phoenix, Arizona (1,366).

A number of other courthouses not in districts along the southwest border made the list of courthouses with the heaviest average criminal caseloads per judge. These included Buffalo (New York West), Salt Lake City (Utah), New Bern (North Carolina East), Sioux City (Iowa North), and Greeneville (Tennessee East). Again, see Table 3.

Table 4 lists the 25 courthouses with the smallest average criminal caseloads. District Court judges in the District of Columbia registered the lowest criminal caseload with only a average of only 147 defendants sentenced per judge during the 70 month study period — a mere 2 percent of the criminal caseload handled by the judge in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Table 4. Top 25 Courthouses with Smallest Criminal Caseloads.
District Courthouse Rank # Active
Average #
District of Columbia District of Columbia 1 9 147
New York East Central Islip 2 3 162
New Jersey Camden 3 4 172
Louisiana West Alexandria 4 1 174
Georgia North Rome 5 1 185
Massachusetts Worcester 6 1 187
Louisiana West Lafayette 7 2 191
Massachusetts Boston 8 9 197
Pennsylvania East Philadelphia 9 10 203
Mississippi South Jackson 10 2 207
Connecticut New Haven 11 2 211
Ohio North Toledo 11 1 211
Connecticut Hartford 13 2 216
Pennsylvania East Allentown 13 2 216
Louisiana East New Orleans 15 10 218
Illinois North Chicago 16 10 219
Michigan East Detroit 17 8 222
Pennsylvania West Johnstown 18 1 224
Pennsylvania East Reading 19 1 225
New Jersey Trenton 20 3 228
California Central Los Angeles 21 13 229
Connecticut Bridgeport 22 2 232
California North San Francisco 23 3 234
Ohio South Cincinnati 23 2 234
New York South White Plains 25 1 250
* Includes only judges who served the entire 70 months (Oct 2006 - July 2012) and had not retired. Excludes judges with workload split across two districts.

Going down the list of the 25 courthouses with the smallest criminal caseloads per judge were a number of courthouses in large metropolitan cities: Boston (8th), Philadelphia (9th), Chicago (16th), Detroit (17th), Los Angeles (21st), and San Francisco (23rd). But also on this list were many courthouses not located in major metropolitan areas. These included Rome, Georgia (5th), Worcester, Massachusetts (6th), Jackson, Mississippi (10th), and Toledo, Ohio (11th) just to mention a few.


Equal justice under the law is a phrase engraved on the front of the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. But can this ambitious promise be realistically met by a national court system with extraordinary differences in the workloads imposed on the individual judges handling cases in different parts of the country?

The responsibility for managing criminal caseloads rests on many shoulders. Congress, of course, is obligated to provide the funding that allows the courts to operate in a fair and effective manner. On the other hand, executive branch policies adopted by such agencies as the FBI, DEA and DHS drive the volume and nature of criminal prosecutions and determine where they are filed. But within these varied constraints, it ultimately is up to the judicial branch to manage the day-to-day operations of the courts.

This clearly is a difficult challenge. With the availability of this new and very detailed courthouse-by-courthouse, judge-by-judge data, we hope that federal officials in all parts of the government can better recognize and openly discuss possible remedies.


Appendix Table A. Differing Criminal Caseloads by Judge Status.
Judge Status # Judges # Sentenced Average #
Lowest Highest
Total* 909 50 7,020 462
Continuous Service from FY 2007
never retired ("active judges") 430 119 7,020 615
previously retired 159 50 2,589 265
retired since September 2006 142 59 6,074 497
Noncontinuous Service
resigned or died 84 55 1,697 229
new Bush appointment 57 69 1,579 329
new Obama appointment 37 52 447 123
* Total includes all federal district court judges who sentenced 50 or more individuals in a district during FY 2007-FY 2012 (July).

Appendix Table B. Composition of Judges and Criminal Caseloads.
Judge Status Judges Defendants
Number Percent Number Percent
Total* 909 100% 419,868 100%
Continuous Service
never retired ("active judges") 430 47% 264,597 63%
previously retired 159 17% 42,174 10%
retired since September 2006 142 16% 70,556 17%
Subtotal 731 80% 377,327 90%
Noncontinuous Service
resigned or died 84 9% 19,206 5%
new Bush appointment 57 6% 18,767 4%
new Obama appointment 37 4% 4,568 1%
Subtotal 178 20% 42,541 10%
* Total includes all federal district court judges who sentenced 50 or more individuals in a district during FY 2007-FY 2012 (July).


[1] For more information about this TRAC database and how we developed it, see The Development of Judge-Specific Federal Sentencing Data at TRAC.

[2] Caseload figures for each judge in this listing are updated monthly with the latest available data compiled by TRAC. The version of the listing used in this report incorporated sentencing records available through July 2012.

[3] The study covered all district court judges who had sentenced at least 50 defendants during the period October 2006 through July 2012. The category of active judges covered those who had been appointed before October 2006 and had not retired at any time prior to July 2012. Judges who split their time between districts were excluded from district comparisons. In addition, because the study period was longer than the one used for TRAC's March report, slightly fewer active judges qualified for inclusion because more judges had retired.

[4] The Constitution forbids Congress to diminish a federal judge's salary. Thus they continue to receive their full salary after they retire unless they resign from office. Despite retirement, however, many senior judges volunteer their time to shoulder some of the court's caseload without extra compensation for this work. Indeed, in our study 301 of the 909 district court judges had retired before or during the study period. They handled 27 percent of the criminal caseload during this same period. A total of 159 out of the 909 judges had retired before the study period began yet they handled fully 10 percent of the criminal caseload in the nation. See Appendix Tables A and B.

[5] We were unable to identify any past empirical studies that actually tested districts to determine whether random assignment took place. The use of random assignment is not a constitutional or statutory requirement. The latest posted web version of the Deskbook for Chief Judges of U.S. District Courts (3rd edition, 2003), published by the Federal Judicial Center, outlines existing guidelines on random assignment as follows (p. 106-7): "Section 137 of Title 28 directs district courts to adopt rules or orders that specify how cases will be assigned to the individual district judges. [...] Most district courts use a random case-assignment system. There are various devices for randomly assigning cases, ranging from sealed envelopes to marbles in a bin. An automated system, available from the Administrative Office's Office of Information Technology, permits courts to use a variety of approaches to random assignment. For example, a court may decide simply to assign each new case randomly to the judges, or a court may decide to assign cases randomly within different divisions of the district or within categories of cases, such as civil and criminal or routine and complex."

[6] Adding to this complexity when looking at individual courthouses, judges serving in one courthouse not infrequently are assigned civil cases filed at other courthouses within their district.

[7] See Federal Court Management Statistics, September 2011. Unlike TRAC's comparisons at the federal courthouse level, the AOUSC rankings are not published by individual courthouse within each federal district. Several other caveats should be noted. For example, it is challenging to capture all relevant differences among cases in adjusting for the differences in time requirements from one case to the next, so even weighted averages are an imperfect index. AOUSC statistics are also based on a per judgeship basis, and do not reflect the actual judge time available in each district which could differ depending upon unfilled positions as well as the availability of senior, visiting and magistrate judges who shoulder part of the load.

[8] The challenge of widely differing caseloads appears to be one of long standing. For example, a 1998 GAO analysis also revealed widely differing judge caseloads among districts, even after weighting cases by their complexity and adjusting for vacancies in judgeships. It is interesting that the D.C. court even then was ranked as having much lower caseloads while the New Mexico court was ranked towards the upper end on the caseload measures used. One contribution of TRAC's current study is that by examining actual caseloads of active judges, our measures have adjusted for the portion of the caseload handled by senior, visiting and magistrate judges.


An early pre-release version of this report included Wichita, Kansas in Table 1. Special circumstances explained differences in judge caseloads in that courthouse.