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Judges Describe Toll Of Court Vacancies: Burnout, Delays, Pressure To Plead Guilty

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WASHINGTON -- Federal judicial vacancies are causing unsustainable courtroom delays, resulting in evidence going stale, witnesses dying before they can testify and, in some instances, people being pressured to plead guilty just to get out of jail faster, according to study released Monday by the Brennan Center for Justice.

The study, featuring interviews with more than 20 judges, clerks and lawyers in 10 federal court districts, offers an in-the-trenches account of what happens to the people trying to carry out the work of a court when their senators take months or even years to fill judicial vacancies. More broadly, the study sheds light on the ill effects of roughly 50 district court vacancies around the country.

Most of the judges who were interviewed for the report describe vacancies translating to heavy caseloads for other judges and delays in administering justice. That increases pressure to hurry up and resolve each case in order to get on to the next one.

"We are seeing accounts of judges not being able to give each of their cases the attention they would otherwise be able to give," Alicia Bannon, the report's author, told The Huffington Post. "That is very troubling."

Texas has some particularly terrible tales. In the Eastern District of Texas, judges regularly travel 350 miles, each way, to hear cases that have piled up as a result of two district court vacancies. In that same region, one woman waited so long for a trial that she was pressured to plead guilty, since her pre-trial detention was comparable with the time she would serve under a plea deal.

"It's a hammer over her head -- plead guilty and you'll be out of jail," her lawyer says in the report. "It undermines your ability to truly go to trial and defend yourself because you think you're innocent. The delay is so much, it's easier to take the plea."

Then there's the Eastern District of California, which last year had the third-highest case filings per judgeship in the U.S., but has had a vacant judgeship for more than 620 days. The chief judge in that district, Morrison England, called the level of delays "not sustainable."

"People lose their memory, evidence spoils, people die," England says in the report. “It's not a good thing.”

Heavy workloads are taking a personal toll on some judges. In four districts, interviewees raised concerns about burnout. One Texas judge says he can see his colleagues getting worn down from having to travel so much to compensate for judicial vacancies.

"I sense a weariness and a tiredness on behalf of our district judges, especially ones that have to travel long
distances," Chief Judge Davis in the Eastern District of Texas says in the report.

The Huffington Post took a closer look at why nominations have stalled in the Texas and California districts cited in the report.

In the case of the two vacancies in the Eastern District of Texas, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) put forward nominees in June and are awaiting a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the case of the vacancy in the Eastern District of California, no one has been nominated. A spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) declined to comment on an ongoing process.

Other judges featured in the study were from the District of Arizona, the Northern District of California, the Middle District of Florida, the Southern District of Florida, the Eastern District of Michigan, the District of Nevada, the Western District of New York and the Western District of Wisconsin.

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