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Judicial Vacancies Slowing Justice in DC Courts, Local Judges Say

By: Allan M. Siegel

An “unprecedented” number of judicial vacancies in DC courts is taking a toll on judges and claimants who seek timely administration of justice and accountability in civil courtrooms. A recent segment from WAMU 88.5 aired lamentations from local judges, and discussed how the problem is “slowing down the wheels of justice.”

Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening:

  • DC Superior Court and DC’s Court of Appeals, which comprise the District of Columbia’s local judiciary, are experiencing a substantial shortage of judges.
  • DC Superior Court, which handles nearly 90,000 cases every year and is supposed to have 61 Associate Judges, is currently short 10 judges.
  • The Court of Appeals, which functions as the District’s supreme court, has 2 of its 9 judicial seats currently vacant; one since 2013, and another since 2017.

The problem stems from DC’s lack of statehood, funding issues, and a sluggish judicial appointment system. With DC not being a state, its courts are funded and operated by the U.S. government. Judges for both courts must also be nominated and approved by federal officials, but the process has been slow to replenish vacancies created by a string of recent retirements.

Judges in both of DC’s lower and higher courts have commented about the effects of the vacancies, and their impact on local residents, businesses, and the administration of justice. Some of the problems they’ve discussed include:

  • Increased caseloads – With severe shortages, presiding judges are tasked with taking on higher caseloads, and many must shuffle between separate divisions, including civil, criminal, domestic violence, family law, and probate and tax.
  • Short-changed divisions – Both courts have had to get creative when assigning judges to handle the slack. While the court’s smallest divisions (probate / tax and domestic violence) have remained largely intact, others have been feeling the effects of shuffling judges. As Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin describes it: when you take from one division, you short-change another. That often means slowed divisions in Superior Court, as well as protracted litigation in the Court of Appeals, which is having a more difficult time piecing together three-judge panels to hear appeals.
  • Civil slowdowns – DC’s civil courts have been hit particularly hard by the vacancies and lapses in judicial appointments. The impact means judges in the civil division, who should ideally have caseloads around 250, are facing dockets with nearly 400 cases. Overall, the increased workload on judges who remain in the division means the progression of civil cases has slowed significantly.

With the problem reaching critical mass, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser approached the White House in March about fast-tracking judicial nominations for DC courts. While those efforts resulted in four new nominees, and hopefully more to come, those nominations still need to clear the Senate, and clear it faster, for DC courts to get a hold on swelling and stagnated caseloads anytime soon.

Chief Judge Robert Morin also used the courts’ judicial shortage problem to highlight another need: a movement toward “civil Gideon.” Named from the 1963 Supreme Court case which created the right to free legal representation in criminal case (Gideon v. Wainwright), civil Gideon looks to extend free representation to civil matters – particularly those where judicial decisions from overburdened judges have profound and permanent effects on families, children, their homes, and their employment.

Civil Trial Lawyers Committed to Justice

Our personal injury attorneys at Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C. have worked in civil courts across Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia for decades. Though our efforts focus on protecting the rights and interests of victims as they seek justice against defendants – many of whom are corporations or are represented by insurance companies – following preventable harm and losses, we know there are times when clients require advocacy for problems affecting the justice system itself.

From supporting sensible policies and legislative updates that protect victims’ against special interests and unreasonable stances – such as damages caps or unfair negligence standards – to helping clients navigate local courts understaffed and overburdened by systemic problems, our goals rest squarely on helping clients in their fight for justice, and securing it in a timely and appropriate manner.

We’re hopeful Congress will recognize the problems plaguing DC courts, and take meaningful steps to correct them. For now, as we always have and will continue to do, our team will be fighting for justice.

If you have questions about a civil injury case in DC, Maryland, or Virginia, call (202) 644-8303 or contact us online to speak with an attorney.