Courts Matter: The Impact on Real People

February 21, 2012

Courts play a critical role for our nation and our communities.

  • All Americans count on being able to “get their day in court.”
  • Court delays damage small businesses, whether they are seeking to vindicate their rights as plaintiffs or to put a lawsuit behind them.
  • Courts – the infrastructure of justice – are just as important to the rule of law as roads and bridges are to transportation.  Without enough judges, that infrastructure is crumbling.
  • Making our courts fully functional is an issue of good government.

Federal judges are required to give priority to criminal cases over civil ones.  Since the number of criminal cases has surged over the past several years – a 70% increase in the past decade – judges are forced to delay the civil cases, often for years. This means long delays for Americans seeking justice in cases involving:

  • discrimination
  • civil rights
  • predatory lending practices
  • consumer fraud
  • immigrant rights
  • environment
  • government benefits
  • business contracts
  • mergers
  • copyright infringement

Many plaintiffs are forced into inadequate settlements and small businesses are pressured to make unnecessary settlements to end the expense and uncertainty of litigation.

  • Example:  In Colorado, Amy Bullock sued a truck manufacturer in 2008, saying a faulty design had caused her husband’s death.  The judge has delayed the trial twice to handle all his criminal cases, and now her trial won’t even start until March 2012 at the earliest.

A Serious Vacancy Crisis is Damaging the Federal Court System

Nearly 160 million people live in circuits or districts with a courtroom vacancy that could have been filled last year, if the Republicans were not preventing votes.  This is the longest period of historically high vacancy rates on the federal judiciary in the last 35 years.

There are now 20 nominees who have been approved by the Judiciary Committee who are waiting for a simple up-or-down vote from the Senate:

  • 18 were approved by the Judiciary Committee with very strong bipartisan support, and 13 were approved without any opposition at all.
  • 11 have been waiting for three months or more for a vote from the full Senate.
  • 10 are nominated to fill vacancies classified as judicial emergencies.
  • 15 of the 20 are women or people of color and one is an openly gay man.

George W. Bush’s judicial nominees received floor votes very soon after committee approval, on average:

  • Circuit court nominees: 30 days (Bush at this point in his term) vs. 135 days (Obama)
  • District court nominees: 23 days (Bush at this point in his term) vs. 91 days (Obama)
  • Both combined:  24 days (Bush at this point in his term) vs. 100 days (Obama)

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