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July 03, 2013

Environmental Justice Delayed? District Court Vacancies Reaching Crisis Levels

Yesterday, The Brennan Center released a report showing just how destructive Senate obstruction has been to the places where some of our most important laws are supposed to be enforced: U.S. District Courts.

The process whereby federal courts get the judges who preside over them used to be simple. The President nominated a qualified candidate and - typically - he or she would then be confirmed by the Senate. But today in Washington, nothing works that simply. Just like in every other policy realm, gridlock rules.

A handful of reckless Senators are gumming up the works for judicial nominees, keeping them from being confirmed and keeping the benches at courthouses across the nation totally empty. Meanwhile, our court systems are stuck with fewer judges and more cases.

The Brennan Center report shows that this crisis is reaching historical proportions. For the first time in decades, the average number of judicial vacancies has been above 60 for five years in a row. That’s 60 courthouses without the judges they need to handle the caseload they receive. The Administrative Office of the United States Courts anticipates another fifteen more district court vacancies will open by January 2014.

This judge shortage is also increasing the average number of cases that district court judges are handling, with the average caseload reaching an all-time high in 2009 and staying at the highest level in more than 20 years in 2012.

Had all vacancies in 2009-2012 been filled, judges would have had an average of 42 fewer pending cases on their dockets each year.

That’s bad news for the environmental movement. That’s because district courts are often the places where the laws we fight for are enforced - and a backlog of cases means our efforts to hold polluters accountable and keep our air and water safe are trapped in the same kind of gridlock as the Senate. District courts are the workhorses of the federal judicial system, resolving legal disputes, conducting civil and criminal trials, and overseeing cases from filing to termination. These courts touch the lives of everyone from the small business owner in a contract dispute, to the family targeted by consumer fraud, to the artist protecting her copyright from infringement, to the Sierra Club working to stop big polluters from harming american families.

Justice delayed due to overworked judges can too often mean justice denied. And if the obstruction in the Senate isn’t stopped soon, it could mean polluted air and water, children whose environment has become toxic are no longer able to play outdoors, toxic fish and water causing illness in our families, and air that causes asthma.

--Sierra Club Media Team Intern Lauren Lantry

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