A new national study has confirmed what many in Fresno’s federal courthouse already know — judges who retire but continue to work are an integral part of the legal system.
Nationally, these “senior” judges handled almost a quarter of the civil and criminal cases that were wrapped up last year in the nation’s federal courts, according to the study by Syracuse University’s Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse. In addition, the workload carried by these judges has almost doubled in the past two decades.
In California’s eastern federal judicial district — which includes courthouses in Fresno and Sacramento — the numbers were even higher. Senior judges here closed out almost 34% of cases in 2014. According to TRAC data, active Eastern District judges adjudicated 2,836 cases last year, while senior judges handled 1,446.
Nationally, the reason is simple, TRAC researchers say: Court cases are growing, but Congress has failed to add additional judge positions. Lawmakers are also slow to fill open positions.
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Taken together, it “clearly exacerbates the workload crisis in our district,” said federal judge Anthony W. Ishii, who retired and moved to senior status in October 2012. “This, in turn, places greater emphasis on the need for our senior district judges to continue to carry a substantial caseload.”
The good news is judges who move to senior status open up their old post to be filled, but continue to work. In essence, it increases the number of working judges and allows the caseload to be spread more evenly.
The bad news is that two of the Eastern District’s senior judges recently called it quits for good, the next active judges won’t be eligible to make the move for almost five years, and those next in line are looking at taking permanent retirement instead continuing to work part-time.
If that happens, it could mean ever greater caseloads for the judges — and a slower judicial system in the central San Joaquin Valley and a huge swath of eastern California.
The Eastern District of California currently has six authorized district judge positions. Four of those are in Sacramento and two are in Fresno. Bills pushed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to increase that number have gone nowhere in Congress.
In 2014 active Eastern District court judges in Fresno adjudicated 2,836 cases, while senior judges handled 1,446.
In Fresno, Lawrence J. O’Neill is the only active district judge. Though Ishii moved to senior status more than two-and-a-half years ago, he is still waiting for his replacement to be approved. Dale A. Drozd, a magistrate judge in Sacramento, has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee to replace Ishii, but he still awaits final Senate approval. When, and if, approval comes, Drozd will set up shop as a full-time district judge in Fresno.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Eastern District had five senior judges, including Oliver W. Wanger, who in 2006 became a senior judge — but kept right on working full-time.
Now — and as caseloads continue to increase — there are just three senior judges. And Ishii, Fresno’s lone senior judge, has already reduced his caseload to half time, and will reduce that by another half when Drozd is approved by the Senate.
The future looks even more dire.
I am leaving. Thirty years on the bench is enough. There are other things to do than this.
Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill, based in Fresno’s federal court
U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. in Sacramento is next eligible to become a senior judge, but that isn’t until December 2019 — more than four years away. O’Neill in eligible a few months later.
But O’Neill says he, England and others in line for senior status after them are looking at permanent retirement — not senior status where they continue to work, but with a reduced caseload.
“I am leaving,” O’Neill said. “Thirty years on the bench is enough. There are other things to do than this.”
A big part of O’Neill’s frustration is that he and his fellow Eastern District judges have been overworked, carrying some of the largest caseloads in the nation.
In some districts, senior judges are seen as a luxury, experts said. In those districts, caseloads are low and the pace is manageable for both active and senior judges. In fact, some senior judges in these districts are disliked because they keep their prime chambers and parking spaces while active judges wait for their permanent retirement to take them. In California’s Eastern District, senior judges are seen as a necessity.
Adding to the challenge, O’Neill said there is talk of reducing benefits for senior judges. The reductions are minimal, covering such things as reimbursements and meal benefits, but he said it sends a message to senior judges at a time when they are a bigger part of the system than ever before.
“It simply says to people you are not that big of an asset,” he said.