Expanding the Courts to Reduce Case Backlogs


Case backlogs significantly impact the judicial system. By delaying the proceedings, case backlogs increase the cost of litigation. When a case is backlogged, parties—especially those that cannot afford to wait or pay for protracted litigation—are incentivized to accept less than optimal settlements. Backlogs also force criminal defendants, who cannot afford bail, to spend a greater amount of time in jail before a determination of their guilt can occur. Moreover, backlogs can stymie justice by delaying trials until after witnesses or even parties have passed away.

Courts across the United States have experienced backlogs for quite some time. Between 2000 and 2014, thousands of civil cases were backlogged in U.S. District Courts each year, and this trend has only continued into the 2020s. For example, as of 2020, the number of backlogged cases in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey sat at a staggering 39,000, up over 230% since 2016. In the administrative law courts of the Department of Health and Human Services, hundreds of thousands of Medicare appeals were backlogged during the 2010s. Similarly, the nation’s immigration court has faced severe backlogs for more than a decade. Concerningly, the immigration court’s backlog has grown at an exceptionally rapid pace. Back in 2012, only 318,832 immigration cases were backlogged. By 2019, the backlog had ballooned to  over one million cases. Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to federal courts. In 2019, county and municipal courts faced an average backlog of 828 cases. That same year, state courts experienced an even greater backlog with an average of 1,030 cases backlogged per court.

The effects of COVID–19 have only exacerbated the nation’s backlogs. By suspending jury trials and in-person proceedings in response to the pandemic, local, state and federal courts have expanded their backlogs. In regards to the former, the pandemic has caused state and local court backlogs to increase on average by about thirty three percent. In Texas, the pandemic has created statewide backlogs that are projected to take three to five years to clear. Similarly, Georgia’s pandemic backlog is projected to last for at least three years. Meanwhile, in Florida, the backlog count has grown to over one million cases since the beginning of the pandemic. In New York City, the backlog of criminal cases has grown by approximately one third since the start of the pandemic. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the U.S. District Courts for the Eastern District of California and the District of Arizona declared judicial emergencies in order to respond to their worsening backlogs.

In order to reduce the backlogs, legislatures should expand the nation’s courts. By establishing new judgeships at local, state and federal levels, more cases can be resolved each year. Although the expansions would require sizeable financial appropriations, the potential benefits would not be insignificant. Based on data from 2020, each new United States District Judge would be able to terminate an average of 527 cases each year

After weighing the costs and benefits of expanding the courts, several governing bodies have already begun to recruit extra judges to reduce their backlogs. As of July 2021, one Texas county unanimously decided to appropriate funds in order to hire three visiting judges. In Massachusetts, the state government rehired 15 retired judges to address their case backlog. In an effort to respond to their state’s backlog, the Wyoming state legislature is debating a bill that would establish additional judgeships. While Congress has authorized the recruitment of 415 more immigration judges to address the immigration court’s backlog, they have yet to expand the nation’s district courts. Hopefully, that will soon change.

About the Author: Sam Zarkower is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. He is from Rye Brook, NY and graduated from Dartmouth College with a Bachelor of Arts in Government and Classical Studies with a Minor in Public Policy.

Suggested Citation: Sam Zarkower, Expanding the Courts to Reduce Case Backlogs, Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (November 10, 2021), http://jlpp.org/blogzine/?p=3796.

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