Expanding the Federal Judiciary Is Not About ‘Packing’ the Courts—It’s About *Saving* Them
This excerpt is from a piece by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza that originally ran in Ms. Magazine on December 8, 2023.
It’s been more than 30 years since Congress did anything to alleviate the caseload crowding the courts created by Article III of the U.S. Constitution. That includes the 94 district courts, which hear trials, and 12 circuit courts, which handle appeals. This ecosystem is comprised of 179 federal appellate judgeships and 673 district court judgeships. For context, the population of the United States grew from 249,000,000 to 340,000,000 (around 37 percent) over the past three decades.
Court expansion isn’t novel or extreme; it’s overdue. Adding seats to ensure federal courts could keep up with the caseload was the norm until President Bill Clinton took office.
The last time Congress acted to provide respite to the courts was in 1990, via the Judicial Improvements Act. The legislation created 11 circuit and 61 district judgeships across the country and enacted guardrails to streamline case management. The significance of the former measure far exceeded the latter because Article III judges have lifetime appointments, making them all but immune to meaningful outside oversight or intervention. It also added a necessary but insufficient stopgap: 13 temporary judgeships, each lasting five years.
More than three decades later, the federal judiciary remains overburdened and faces new challenges. When the pandemic hit, the Judicial Conference had to adapt, anticipating that the already enormous backlog of cases would explode, delaying or entirely deferring justice for thousands of people. Only because the number of cases brought by prosecutors and litigants in civil proceedings fell did the worst prognostications not come to pass. Of course, state, local and municipal courts were hit harder by COVID and the lingering effects of the pandemic on these institutions may yet drive litigants to seek resolution through the federal judicial system instead.