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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Rankings of Federal District Judges

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has released its annual report on Federal Judicial Caseload Statistics through March 31, 2007.  Today's Legal Times discusses the reaction to the report in New Report Identifies the Slowest Federal Judges in the Land; Semiannual Report on Pending Cases and Motions Identifies the Judges with Steep Backlogs in Cases, by Joe Palazzolo:

Last month, the Administrative Office released its semiannual report on pending cases and motions, which -- however imperfect -- is the closest thing there is to a judicial report card. The difference between a docket that moves on rails and one that drags along on gravel can come down to one mammoth case or 1,000 smaller ones, and there are no apparent penalties or rewards one way or the other. ...

The office's data, current as of March 2007, show that most dockets are somewhere in between, but 13 judges had at least 100 civil cases pending for longer than three years, and 22 judges had 50-plus motions pending for six months or more. A handful had more than 100 motions and more than 200 cases pending -- the kind of backlog that doesn't go unquestioned. ...

The backlog, according to the data, cuts across age and experience, but those with the deepest dockets, almost uniformly, say the rankings fail to account for the nuance of law. ...

Sluggishness comes at little price for judges with lifetime appointments, at least in the sense of career advancement. Chief judges can't dock the pay of slowpoke judges or fire them, but there are methods for bringing them in line. "There are certainly peer pressures that you can bring, and obviously the chief judge has power of persuasion more than anything else," says Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan of the District of Columbia. Hogan says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit punishes judges for lethargy by throwing them off cases, a policy instituted long ago. But at the district level, Hogan says, "We thought that would be rewarding a slow judge, by taking them off the docket."

The Administrative Office's reports are mandated by the Civil Justice Reform Act, enacted in 1990 to bring more transparency to the third branch. Some judges keep up with them more than others.

Judge Harvey Bartle III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania leads the list of judges in the caseload category, with an improbable 473 pending cases. According to the report, the vast majority of those cases consist of personal-injury matters related to multidistrict litigation. Bartle did not respond to a call for comment.

U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum, who sits in Minnesota, is No. 1 in pending motions, with 189. The judge declined to comment, but the Administrative Office's records show that he had three or fewer outstanding motions in the last two reporting periods. The upsurge in motions comes from hundreds of cases in Rosenbaum's court over a 2002 train derailment in Minot, N.D., that let loose a cloud of toxic anhydrous ammonia, killing one man and injuring hundreds more.

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