Supreme Court Rulings 2013: An Understaffed Judicial Branch Has Consequences

I plan to talk about Obama’s recent nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court, but first we’ll talk about something a little different. I think that it’s an important thing to get out of the way.

The problems in our courts sometimes seem very abstract and without real-world consequence. However, there are real consequences to an understaffed judicial branch, and some of them can even be seen in relatively recent news articles. I’d like to share one of these stories with you — one you probably missed.

Back in February, the Associated Press ran a story about a press-freedom trial that wasn’t happening. The plaintiff, a photographer for an NGO that educates about and advocates for wild horses, was denied access to wild mustang roundups in Nevada and filed a suit complaining that her freedom of the press rights were being infringed. However, the following year, the case still had not been heard.

When asked to explain why the case was taking so long, according to the AP, the judge "said Nevada's judicial district is so understaffed that four judges now oversee cases that seven judges used to handle. He added that the district's caseload has nearly doubled since it was fully staffed six years ago and that it was one of the busiest districts in the nation even then."

There are two vacancies currently on the U.S. district court with jurisdiction over Nevada. There was one more at the time of that story that was resolved in the interim. Neither of the current two vacancies are what are termed “judicial emergencies,” yet you can already see the strain that an understaffed judiciary can cause.

What are judicial emergencies? It’s a term that you’ll probably hear frequently over the course of this fight, probably with relatively little explanation. For those who don’t want the technical explanation, suffice to say that it’s when there is officially a larger caseload than a court can handle (for those who do want the technical explanation, see the notes at the bottom of this page).

For those who want a story that’s a bit more personal, the Salt Lake Tribune reported back in 2011 about a man whose daughter died when his gas can exploded. When he tried to sue, it took the courts four and a half years to get to and decide his case, due to understaffing of the court. During that time his medical bills related to the accident had skyrocketed to over $200,000.

It’s important to keep stories like these in mind when considering the fight over judicial appointments that is going on right now. The current fight is over three nominations to the D.C. Circuit Court, a particularly volatile fight because that court oversees many cases having to do with federal regulation and national security.

Right now, most of the articles are fighting over who’s to blame, Democrats or Republicans. I’ll talk about that in a future post, but for right now, let’s just understand that there are serious costs to a poorly functioning judiciary.