Some Federal Judges Handle Inordinate Caseloads

Federal district judges vary markedly in their workload. A number of federal judges have sentenced more than a thousand defendants over the course of a single year. In contrast, typically judges sentence only several hundred even over a five-year span of time. For some, civil caseloads can be even higher. While last year a typical judge closed 250 civil cases, a few judges closed thousands during the twelve- months of 2017.

This report presents findings from a new analysis about the varying workloads of federal district court judges. The analysis covers both regular and senior judges who have retired but still hear cases. While retired, some senior judges handle more cases then regular judges. Altogether, last year senior judges handled a quarter (24.3%) of criminal and civil cases that were decided. Without the willingness of senior judges to continue to hear cases[1], the workload of regular judges in some districts would be even more crushing.

Based on both extensive internal government data as well as court records, this research was carried out by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Civil Workloads Can Vary Because of Special Assignments

The latest available data show that for the year ending December 2017, twelve United States district judges each closed more than a thousand civil cases, while seventeen judges ended the year with a thousand or more pending civil cases. In contrast, the typical active federal district court judge as noted above closed around 250 cases this past year, and had 268 pending cases.

While the federal court often uses random assignment in determining which cases are assigned to individual judges, for civil cases there are a number of reasons that courts use to assign particular cases to an individual judge. For example, judges that handle unusually large caseloads often have been assigned the responsibility of handling multidistrict litigation. Here similar cases from more than one district are bundled together and assigned to a single judge to rule on the common questions of law embedded in the cases.

This was the reason that United States District Judge Joseph Robert Goodwin in the Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston) closed the most cases in the nation last year - a record 40,584. He also continues to have the largest pending caseload with 25,000 civil matters still pending at the end of December. This extraordinarily high workload was because Judge Goodwin has been assigned the responsibility of handling multidistrict pelvic repair system product liability litigation.

Occasionally other factors led to particularly high caseloads. For example, U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Simandle in the District of New Jersey (Camden) closed the third largest total of civil cases (1,698) in the country. The largest share of these (86.6%) were prisoner petitions. Individual prisoner petitions often are completed fairly quickly, so at any one time the pending caseload is modest. Judge Simandle's pending caseload at the end of December 2017 was just 334 cases. Similarly, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon closed 1,147 cases in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan). Nearly four out of ten (38.9%) of her cases were prison petitions as well. She currently serves as the Chief Judge of that district.

In the Eastern District of Texas (Marshall), U.S. District Judge James Rodney Gilstrap also closed over a thousand cases (1,095) last year. However, four out of five (81.8%) of his cases - more than twice the district average - were property rights cases.

Other Federal Judges Handle Inordinate Criminal Caseloads

During the past five years, through December 2017, forty-nine federal district court judges each sentenced more than one thousand defendants who appeared before them. All but two of these judges were located in courthouses along the southwest border with Mexico. In contrast, typically judges sentenced several hundred, not several thousand defendants over this five year time span.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Brack, in Las Cruces, in the District of New Mexico, topped the list sentencing 6,858 defendants. Eighty-five percent of those sentenced were convicted for immigration offenses, and an additional eleven percent for drug offenses. Judge Brack also led the list in previous years. For his reactions to sentencing the most defendants, see TRAC's February 2015 report.

Following Judge Brack, U.S. District Judge Alia M. Moses was in second place. She sentenced 5,135 defendants who appeared in her Del Rio courtroom in the Western District of Texas. In third place was U.S. District Judge Kenneth John Gonzales who sentenced 4,668 defendants. Judge Gonzales also sits with Judge Brack in the Las Cruces courthouse. He was a more recent appointment to the bench, receiving his commission on August 9, 2013 so had not served for the entire five-year period covered by these comparisons.

For federal districts that weren't located along the southwest border, U.S. District Judge Linda R. Reade sentenced the largest number of defendants - a total of 1,070. Based in her Cedar Rapids courtroom in the Northern District of Iowa, Judge Reade served as chief judge until she retired on October 1, 2017. The largest share of her cases (36.2%) were for drug offenses, followed by weapons (22.6%) and immigration violations (22.2%)

Judge-by-Judge Reporting Tools

Information on the criminal and civil workloads of each federal district court judge is available in TRAC's Judge Information Center. The findings cover all active judges as well as senior judges who had retired from the bench but still heard cases. Information is available not only on each judge's overall caseload, but by type of suit.

In addition, detailed reports on each judge are available on a subscription basis. The criminal workload reports provide details of the sentencing record for each judge, compared with the other judges serving in that federal district. Information on criminal disposition times are also available. The civil workload reports provide detailed comparisons of the time it takes each judge to close cases, as well as how long cases still pending before each judge have been waiting to be disposed of.


[1] Because of their lifetime appointment, senior judges continue to receive the same pay whether or not they continue to work. Their salary continues until they die or resign from their appointment.

TRAC data on the workloads of federal judges are part of TRAC's Judge Information Center. TRAC compiles, verifies, and publishes information on the workloads of federal district court judges. The Center includes TRAC's free Civil Caseload Tool that provides rankings for nearly every federal district court judge in the country — by the number of civil cases pending at the time of the last update, the number closed in the year prior to the last update, and the number of defendants sentenced in the past five years. The Judge Information Center also provides information on criminal caseloads and Immigration Court judges.

In addition to the free caseload data, a subscription to the Center provides access to custom reports on each judge, showing in greater detail the composition of the judge's caseload, the time on average it takes to close cases, how those closing times compare to other judges in the district, and a detailed look at the cases the judge took the longest to close.

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact or call 315-443-3563.