America prides itself on the rule of law, a concept that requires a vigorous judiciary. For too long now, the federal courts have struggled with a shortage of judges because partisanship in Washington, D.C., has resulted in dozens of vacancies going unfilled.
As the Post-Gazette’s Tracie Mauriello reported Tuesday, the four vacancies in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania are the most anywhere. Across the nation, however, there are 112 vacancies, the highest profile being the empty seat on the Supreme Court left by the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia. There are also 86 vacancies in district courts, 17 in circuit courts of appeals, six in the Court of Federal Claims and two in the Court of International Trade.
Worse, only 59 candidates have been nominated for the vacancies, meaning there would be no quick way to fill nearly half of those seats even if the partisan bickering were to cease immediately. Forty-one courts have what are called “judicial emergencies” because of the number of vacancies and the number of cases awaiting adjudication. At least 12 more vacancies in district courts — none of them in Pennsylvania — are expected this year.
None of that takes into account what some observers believe is a pressing need for additional judges in parts of the country. The number of federal judges, covering all types of courts, has remained at about 890 since 2003.
In Pennsylvania, Sens. Pat Toomey, a Republican, and Bob Casey, a Democrat, are known for collaborating on the selection of judicial nominees — and they plan to continue their collaboration. Mr. Casey’s office said the nominees are in limbo because the GOP leadership wouldn’t bring them to a vote.
Vacancies slow cases, dragging out justice for victims and hampering the fortunes of companies involved in contract or intellectual property disputes. According to a 2014 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, vacancies have made it difficult to schedule the blocks of time needed to hear complex cases. The report quoted one judge as saying, “We don’t neglect the Seventh Amendment, the right to a civil trial. But we tell people, if this is what you want to do, it will take time to get there.” Even criminal cases have been affected, the report said, quoting defense attorneys as saying some defendants plead guilty simply to avoid waiting for trial.
The prospect for quickly resolving the backlog in trial and circuit courts is nil, given the pressing need to address the vacancy on the Supreme Court. But President-elect Donald Trump and the Republicans and Democrats in Congress should keep in mind the old adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”