Colorado Needs More Federal Judges


Colorado Doesn’t Have Enough Federal Judges To Handle A Growing Caseload

The last time that the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, the federal trial court in the state, had a new judge authorized was in 1984 which brought it to a roster of seven full-time Article III federal judges.  Colorado’s federal judges have 40% more cases each than the national average. Colorado’s population has grown 66% since 1984. Colorado has one regular Article III federal judge per 765,124 people as of July 2014, and is one of the fastest growing states in the nation right now.

Colorado also has far more than its share of pro se prisoner’s petitions because it is home to four large federal prisons in Florence, including AdMax, the highest security prison in the nation.  The task of handling suits challenging prison conditions and collateral attacks on prison conditions from prisoner’s makes up a significant share of the responsibility of federal trial courts and those suits most often come from prisoners serving long terms in high security facilities.

In 1984, it took an average of 13 months from the time a lawsuit was filed to the time of trial. In the 1990s, it increased to 19 months. Today, it takes an average of 29 months for civil cases to go to trial[.]

It isn’t unusual for it to take six months or more for a judge to rule on a fully briefed motion in federal court in Colorado, and this isn’t because federal judges are lazy, or the American system of civil procedure is inefficient.  No other court system in the world operates with anything close to as few judges per case as the American one does.

While some of the increased time to trial is a product of new procedures and different kinds of cases on the docket, much of it is simply a function of having fewer judges to do the same amount of work.  Even if federal court jurisdiction were significantly narrowed in order to shift more cases to state courts, and federal criminal prosecution policies were changed to reduce federal criminal caseloads materially, Colorado’s federal judges would still be overworked.

Some of that work can be delegated to retired “senior judges” and to magistrates, but much of that work must be done by full fledged active federal district court judges.

Few Areas Of Government Spending Produce Such High Returns

Colorado already has plenty of court house space to serve a couple of new federal judges.

Federal judges are paid $199,100 per year, which once administrative support staff and employee benefit are considered works out to something more like $350,000-$400,000 per federal judgeship.  But, a significant share of the cost of a federal judgeship is offset by filing fees in civil litigation and court costs paid by federal criminal defendants who are convicted.  In round, back of napkin estimates, those amount to something like $150,000 per judge, although when an overloaded court gets more judges to handle the burden, that isn’t likely to increase court revenues very much.  So, the cost of two new judges for Colorado is likely to be about $700,000.

Without a doubt, $700,000 is a tiny price to pay for a decision that is almost guaranteed to significantly reduce the amount of time it takes for cases to go to trial in many thousands of cases per year in Colorado. This is something on the order of $175 per private civil case, and perhaps $50 per case or less, spread across the entire docket which also includes civil cases where the United States is a party and criminal cases.

Almost every case on the docket would realize $50-$175 of benefits by being resolved many months sooner than they are today.  Skimping on tiny expenditures in the larger scheme of things for a critical choke point in the U.S. economy where some of our most crucial disputed economic decisions are made, does us no favors.

The Politics Are Right To Secure Wide Bipartisan Support

This is also a matter upon which Colorado is well suited to secure bipartisan support at the moment.

Long, and almost uniformly honored tradition in the U.S. Senate requires that all U.S. District Court judicial appointments from the President be approved by both Senators from the affected state.  Right now, Colorado is represented in the U.S. Senate by a fairly moderate Democrat (relative to his caucus in the U.S. Senate) and a fairly moderate Republican (relative to his caucus in the U.S. Senate), who have so far in their brief cohabitation as U.S. Senators from Colorado not shown undue animosity towards each other.  Thus, both parties are pretty much guaranteed that any judges appointed to fill the two new vacancies that the bill would create in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado would be judicial moderates, chosen for competence rather than for their political leanings.

Given these realities, unsurprisingly, every single member of Colorado’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives has backed a bill introduced by Diana DeGette to authorize two more judgeships, for a total of nine, in Colorado.  This is no good reason to delay action on this clear problem with a clear solution and obvious benefits to Colorado’s economy.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

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