Memo to President Trump and Capitol Hill leaders: The Central Valley needs new judges

Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse, 2500 Tulare Street
Robert E. Coyle United States Courthouse, 2500 Tulare Street Fresno Bee file photo

Unlike the president or members of Congress, federal judges do their work largely out of public view.

That’s why it is noteworthy that the chief judge for the U.S. District Court’s Eastern District, Lawrence J. O’Neill of Fresno, has publicly called on California’s two U.S. senators and the Central Valley’s House members to get more judges for the region.

The reason is simple: The Eastern District is among the busiest court systems in the nation. Eastern District judges have twice the caseload of the national average of their colleagues. And if something isn’t done — and fast — O’Neill says a key part of the judicial process will grind to a halt. Facing pending retirements, the only way forward if no new judges join the bench is for the Eastern District to stop hearing civil cases, O’Neill says.

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Lawrence J. O’Neill, chief judge for the Eastern District for the U.S. District Court. U.S. District Court

The judiciary is the third part of the federal government. Having a judicial system “is a right prescribed by the Constitution,” he notes. “This should not be a begging situation.”

O’Neill is absolutely right. There is no excuse not to get new judgeships created for the district. Congress needs to pass a bill to that end so President Trump can nominate new judges.

O’Neill first issued his call in a letter to the Eastern District’s federal representatives last June. In mid-February he re-issued it. In the letter, O’Neill shared the following:

The last time the Eastern District got a new judgeship was 1978. Then, the district’s population was 2.5 million. Today it is more than 8 million.

The eastern inland district is sprawling, running from the Los Angeles-Kern County line on the south to the Oregon border on the north. Key cities are Fresno, Sacramento, Modesto, Bakersfield and Redding. The district includes four federal prisons; 188 federal buildings; 13 national forests; nine national parks, including Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon; 19 state prisons; and 923,000 acres of federal land.

The six judges are each responsible for 900 cases at any time. The national average caseload for federal judges is 425 cases.

Unless something is done fast, the caseload will rise to about 1,250 per judge when two of the current judges retire at the end of this year and early in 2020. At that level, O’Neill said handling civil cases will be untenable.

“Justice will not be done in civil cases because they will be the first to be shelved,” he said. “The reason for that is the Constitution has a speedy-trial right to anyone involved in the criminal justice system.”

An example of a civil case would be a farmer suing an adjoining property owner over water rights. Resolving a water case might be the difference between a farmer staying in agriculture or not.

Any crime committed on federal property is handled by the U.S. courts, as are any violations of federal law or the Constitution. In addition, O’Neill said inmates in state prisons are adept at filing cases alleging their civil rights were violated, which becomes a federal matter.

O’Neill has the white hair and composed manner of someone Hollywood would cast as a judge. His office high up in the Robert E. Coyle U.S. Courthouse in downtown Fresno affords an amazing view of the snow-capped Sierra to the east. A federal judge earns $208,000 a year.

But the days are long and the work can be grueling. O’Neill gets to the office typically by 6 a.m. to take advantage of some quiet time before the court clerks arrive and trials or hearings begin. Those make up the bulk of the day, and then he quits around 5 p.m. and takes home legal material to read after dinner. That includes “hundreds of pages” of briefings by lawyers, probation reports and letters from crime victims and defendants, and their family and friends. The next day, it starts all over.

He’s done it for 30 years: 21 in the federal system, and before that, nine as a Superior Court judge. In less than a year O’Neill plans to retire completely to enjoy his family, including grandchildren.

“To be attracted to this job, you have to be attracted to public service,” he says.

That is the same motivation expressed by California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, and their Republican and Democrat colleagues in the House of Representatives, including Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, TJ Cox, D-Fresno and Devin Nunes, R-Tulare.

Feinstein is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which confirms federal judges nominated by the president. O’Neill wants her and the others to introduce an emergency bill to create five new judgeships at a minimum.

O’Neill also hopes Valley residents will write the elected officials and “demand that we get the resources we need to run the federal courts.”

Much has been made about President Trump’s going around Congress to fund a border wall, with some lawmakers calling it a constitutional crisis.

A real crisis is occurring every day in the Central Valley’s understaffed federal courts. Thankfully, it is one Congress can solve. It is time for Sens. Feinstein and Harris, along with Reps. Costa, Cox and Nunes, to get new judgeships for the Eastern District.