People For the American Way

Court Official – “I Just Don’t See an End to Our Backlog”

The Memphis Commercial Appeal offers a window into how one state is impacted by the courtroom vacancy crisis.

With federal caseloads growing, a vacant seat on the bench and no relief in sight, local court officials are calling in the cavalry from the north.

Under a special Visiting Judges Program, three federal judges from Michigan — one of the four states in the Sixth Judicial Circuit that includes Tennessee — have agreed to help ease the local backlog.

So far 30 local criminal and civil cases have been reassigned to the three judges[,] who may be able to handle some of the work by teleconference, but who otherwise will be scheduling court time in Memphis.

The elevation last fall of U.S. Dist. Court Judge Bernice Donald to the federal appeals court bench has created a vacancy and thus added to the existing backlog. (Criminal Court Judge John Fowlkes Jr. has been nominated to fill the vacancy, though confirmation can be a lengthy process.)

[Clerk of the U.S. District Court for Western Tennessee Thomas] Gould does not believe the visiting judges will be the answer to the local court’s backlog, but said reinforcements should bring at least some temporary relief until Donald’s vacancy is filled.

Gould said other districts have similar caseload problems. "Many courts have never (used visiting judges) and others permanently have visiting judges on staff. Even with a full complement of judges, we’re going to be struggling to come out of the cellar in terms of how long it takes to dispose of cases.

"I’d like to see a program of visiting judges go on indefinitely if there are people willing to help us do that. I just don’t see an end to our backlog."

John Fowlkes was nominated to the Western District of Tennessee in December. Unfortunately, unless the backlog of pending nominees is quickly dealt with and floor votes are subsequently scheduled in a timely manner, Fowlkes will be standing at the back of a needlessly long line. If the people of Tennessee want to see a confirmed judge in their area any time soon, they have an interest in what happens with nominees from other parts of the country.


Courts, John T. Fowlkes, judicial nominations, Lower Federal Courts, Obstruction, Obstructionism