A ‘judicial catastrophe’ is looming, Fresno judge says. Court vacancies are a problem

The Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse in Fresno, where Presiding Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill has raised an alarm about filling vacancies on the bench.
The Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse in Fresno, where Presiding Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill has raised an alarm about filling vacancies on the bench. Fresno Bee file

A Fresno-area federal judge has sounded the alarm about U.S. Eastern District Court vacancies that could lead to a “an impending, acute and judicial catastrophe.”

Presiding Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill sent a letter on Friday to the White House and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, warning about impending retirements on the court with the highest caseload in the nation for more than two decades.

“The statement sounds serious and ominous. It is both,” he said of the potential catastrophe. “It may also sound like an exaggeration. It is not.”

The court, which represents a district of about 8.5 million people, is three months away from losing one-third of its judges to retirement, the letter says. The elected officials must fill two of the court’s impending vacancies soon or risk the due process of defendants, O’Neill wrote.

The confirmation process for judges can be time-consuming so elected officials will have to act quickly, according to O’Neill.

“In addition, based on the high and increasing numbers of criminal indictments being brought in the Eastern District of California, there exists a high possibility that a number of criminal cases will have to be dismissed due to an inability to comply with the Speedy Trial Act,” the letter says.

Representatives for Harris said Monday they had not yet received the letter from O’Neill.

“Senator Harris believes a functioning judiciary is critical,” Harris’ office said in a statement. “That’s why she and Senator Feinstein are committed to working together to find qualified candidates.”

Feinstein was not immediately available for comment, but her office also released a statement.

“Senator Feinstein understands the critical role of judges in the Eastern District and shares Judge O’Neill’s concerns about two upcoming vacancies,” the statement said. “She and Senator Harris are working to ensure that qualified, mainstream jurists are promptly nominated to fill those vacancies.”

Requests for comment from the White House were not immediately returned.

The last new judge to be appointed was U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale Drozd in 2015. Judges have said previously that the court would benefit by adding six new judges, lightening the load for everyone on the bench.

The district judge job comes with a lifetime tenure, a 2019 yearly salary of $210,900 and, in California’s central San Joaquin Valley, a heavy workload.

The Eastern District of California stretches from the Oregon border in the north to the Tehachapi Mountains in the south, and is the largest of the state’s four federal judicial districts. The two main courthouses are in Sacramento and Fresno, while magistrate judges sit in Yosemite, Redding and Bakersfield.

Related stories from Fresno Bee

Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.