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RELEASE: Texas’s Courts Could Have Decided 19 Years’ Worth of Cases Had Judges Been Appointed on Schedule

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Contact: Madeline Meth
Phone: 202.741.6277
Email: mmeth@americanprogress.org

Washington, D.C. — More than 19 years’ worth of cases could have been decided by the Texas district and circuit courts had judges been appointed on schedule, according to a new report released today by the Center for American Progress and Progress Texas. Instead, there is a backlog of more than 12,000 cases, denying Texans access to justice. The report, “Texas, Where Are the Judges?”, explores the judicial vacancy crisis in Texas and puts the issue into new context.

“Texans  deserve access to justice, not a backlog of cases and empty courtrooms,” said Joshua Field, co-author of the report and Deputy Director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress. “In order to solve the judicial vacancy problem in Texas, Sens. Cornyn and Cruz must act quickly to recommend qualified and diverse judicial candidates to the White House and make the process for finding judicial candidates in Texas more transparent.”

The report finds that, because of the deference to home-state senators to recommend judicial nominees, the blame for this judicial vacancy crisis falls squarely on the shoulders of Texas’s two U.S. senators, Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have failed to act and address this serious problem. Because of Senate tradition, district and circuit court nominees do not make it to a confirmation vote without the support of home-state senators. Therefore, the White House generally defers to the recommendations of these home-state senators. In that spirit of cooperation, Sen. Cornyn and former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) worked together to help fill the Texas bench while President George W. Bush was in office. As of March 19 in the sixth year of Bush’s presidency, Texas’s Republican senators helped confirm district court judges in Texas by seeking qualified candidates to fill the 18 vacant seats using a commission process. Since President Barack Obama has been in office, just six Texas seats have been filled—all during Sen. Hutchison’s tenure. No judicial vacancies in Texas have been filled since Sen. Cruz took office in January 2013.

Because of Sens. Cornyn and Cruz’s obstruction, as of March 2014:

  • Texas alone constitutes more than 20 percent of all future and current federal judicial vacancies without a nominee across the country
  • Current Texas federal judgeships have sat vacant for 5,687 days, or 15.58 years, on the district courts; 1,454 days, or 3.98 years, on the circuit courts; and a total of 7,141 days, or 19.56 years
  • The Texas federal court backlog—which is based on the number of days that currently unfilled judgeships have sat vacant and on the average number of cases both circuit court and district court judges hear per year—stands at more than 10,450 cases backlogged in the district courts and more than 1,760 cases backlogged in the circuit courts, for a total of  more than 12,210 backlogged cases

What makes vacancies on Texas’s federal courts especially concerning is that the courts near the U.S.-Mexico border have the highest caseloads in the nation. And most of Texas’s current and future vacancies are in the Western and Southern Districts that serve the southwest border of Texas. The criminal felony docket for these courts is swollen with drug and immigration cases. In a 2010 year-end report, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts said the failure to nominate and confirm judges in a timely manner “has created acute difficulties in some judicial districts,” particularly highlighting the courts on the southwest border. Last year, the Judicial Conference of the United States, chaired by Justice Roberts, asked Congress to create new judgeships in Texas to deal with the growing caseload.

To speak with experts on this issue, please contact Madeline Meth at mmeth@americanprogress.org or 202.741.6277.

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