Can I get a new judge, please?

I had the pleasure of attending the annual District of Idaho Bench Bar Conference on Friday – an annual meeting of our federal court judges and those of us who practice regularly in that court.  I was once again struck by two facts.  First, we are fortunate to have an amazing group of eight men and women who serve this state as our federal judges.  They are incredibly dedicated and hard-working jurists, but also happen to be eight friendly and funny people.  Judge Lodge had me in stitches.  In addition to possessing an amazing sense of humor, he turns 79 years old tomorrow, has 50 years of experience on the bench, and still works a full case load.  I was also struck by how incredibly overworked these people are.  Idaho has one of the busiest – if not the busiest – federal courts in the country.

The federal judiciary is created by Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  In modern practice, we have several types of federal judges.  “Article III judges” are the judges specifically mentioned in the Constitution.  They are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and they serve for life unless impeached.  They are initially responsible for every federal civil and criminal matter in the state.  In Idaho we have two.  Idaho has a population of about 1.6 million people (39th in the country) and a geographic area of about 84,000, and Judges Lodge and Winmill are responsible for all of it.  More about how insane this is in a bit.

The federal courts also make extensive use of “magistrate judges,” who are not mentioned in Article III, but have been created by Congress to help the court system deal with its work.  Magistrates are hired for a specific duration of time, and have limited powers to handle cases, both criminal and civil.  Litigants have a Constitutional right to have one of the Article III judges (not a magistrate) decide their case.  But the Article III judges can delegate lots of the procedural work to magistrates automatically, and the parties can consent to have a magistrate hear and decide all aspects of the case.  In Idaho, we have four magistrates currently serving: Judges Dale and Bush (who are full-time) and Judges Boyle and Williams (who are both “retired” but work nearly full calendars).  “Bankruptcy judges,” as the name implies, handle only bankruptcy cases for the state.  We have two of those: Judges Pappas and Meyers.

Other jurisdictions also have “senior Article III judges.”  After an Article III judge meets certain criteria, he or she can opt to move to senior status.  A judge on senior status is effectively no different than a “regular” Article III judge, except that he or she is not obligated to handle the same case load.  (Judges can also go on full retirement or resign from their positions and return to the private sector.)  A senior judge continues to assist with the court’s workload, but frees up a position for the President to appoint a new Article III judge.  In Idaho, we have no Article III judges on senior status.

How does this compare to other states?  Only two other states in the country have only two judge seats: North Dakota (population 670,000, 48th in the country) and Vermont (population 630,000, 49th in the country).  All other states with populations less than Idaho have at least three judges, with Delaware and Hawaii having four each.  Out of curiosity, I calculated a number of people per judge for each state in the country.  The worst ratios are Wisconsin (813,000 people per judge), North Carolina (795,000 people per judge), and Idaho (785,000 people per judge).  The best ratios are Wyoming (187,000 people per judge), Louisiana (206,000 people per judge), and Delaware (225,000 people per judge).

The federal courts track workloads per judge, based on a weighted average of cases.  Idaho was 574 per judge in 2010.  Wisconsin was 404 and North Carolina was 436.  Meanwhile, Wyoming had 243 and Alaska had 184.  In other words, Idaho’s judges are over three times busier than their counterparts in Alaska.

Any way you slice the data, Idaho has one of the busiest federal courts in the United States.  This translates to delays for litigants, and the possibility of our court having to bring in judges from other states to hear Idaho cases.  And with the budget issues in Washington, we aren’t likely to get a new one any time soon.  Perhaps it is time to take one of Alaska’s or Wyoming’s judges and send them our way?

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