The Way I See It

The Way I See It--Open Letter to Senators Levin and Abraham Re: Too Many District Judgeships in the Eastern District of Michigan

by John Mayer

Dear Senator Levin:

Dear Senator Abraham:

The purpose of this letter is to urge you to offer an amendment to S. 1145 (the Federal Judgeship Act of 2000) reducing the number of authorized judgeships in the Eastern District from 15 to 13. Now that the two pending nominees have been confirmed and their commissions signed, you are presented with a window of opportunity to act on this matter without a pending vacancy on the Court.

Why There Are Too Many Judgeships

The Court has had more authorized judgeships than it has needed since 1984. At that time, the number of authorized judgeships was increased from 13 to 15 because the Judicial Conference and Congress both gave undue weight to a two-year spike in Social Security disability case filings. By 1986, weighted case filings had returned to previous levels.

How the Number of Judgeships Is Determined

The Judicial Conference of the United States recommends to Congress the need for additional judgeships every two years. It will not even consider recommending an additional judgeship for a district unless the weighted caseload per judge exceeds 430. This year, in a rare action, the Judicial Conference has recommended that Congress reduce the number of judgeships in four districts because of low weighted case filings: the District of Columbia District (258), Delaware (242), Wyoming (175), and the Southern District of West Virginia (276).

Eastern Michigan Has Fewer Case Filings Than Most Large Federal Courts

Of the 21 largest federal district courts, those with 10 or more authorized judgeships, Eastern Michigan ranks 18th in weighted case filings with 352. Only the District of Columbia District (258), the Western District of Pennsylvania (294), and the District of Massachusetts (318) have fewer weighted case filings

What Is a Weighted Case Filing?

The caseloads in the 94 districts vary considerably in their composition. The Federal Judicial Center conducts a survey periodically to determine how much district judge time is required in disposing of different kinds of cases. The FJC then produces a schedule of case weights that allows the case filings in one court to be compared to the case filings in all other courts. For example, a Social Security disability case, which is handled mainly by a magistrate judge rather than a district judge, is given a weight of 0.48, while a death penalty habeas corpus case is weighted 5.99. This means that the death penalty case, on the average, will take 12 times more district judge time than a Social Security disability case. In reality, I think the ratio is probably even greater than 12 to one.

What about the Dow Corning Silicon Gel Breast Implant Cases?

Please recall that the number of judgeships is based on the number of weighted filings from year to year. The pending caseload in the Eastern District has been inflated for several years by a large group of cases (14,795 as of 3/1/2000) against Dow Corning, most of them transferred to this court from federal and state courts around the country. These cases take a large part of the time of a district judge and staff and a bankruptcy judge and staff, with support from both clerks’ offices. However, these pending cases have virtually no impact on the work of any of the other district or bankruptcy judges.

Eastern Michigan Exports More Judicial Resources Than Any Other District

Reports of the Administrative Office show that year-in-year-out more judges from the Eastern District sit in other districts than judges from any other district court. This abundance of judges from Eastern Michigan who request assignment to other courts is one further indication of excess judicial capacity in this district.

The Important Role of Senior Judges

The Eastern District of Michigan has a well-established history of judicial activity by its senior judges. In many districts, senior judges are not so active or productive. By carrying a half-caseload or more, senior judges give the court the added judicial resources of two to three judgeships. Given the size of the court and the number of judges who will become eligible for senior status in the coming years, it is reasonable to assume that the Eastern District will continue to have the additional resources of two to three judgeships for the foreseeable future.

The Cost of Maintaining Judgeships

The Administrative Office of the United States Courts estimates that it costs $500,000 per year to pay, staff, house, and otherwise support a district judge. Reducing the number of judgeships in the Eastern District will save the federal judiciary, and ultimately the taxpayers, $1,000,000 per year.

Closing Argument

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan has at least two more judgeships than it needs. During a pending vacancy, it is impossible to deal with this issue because of the expectations of judges and attorneys seeking the nomination and the complex procedures traditionally used to screen applicants.

A Window of Opportunity

If Congress follows past practice, the judgeship bill will be enacted during the next few months while there is no vacancy on the Court. You are presented with a window of opportunity, which will not last long, to offer an amendment to S. 1145 to reduce the number of authorized judgeships in the Eastern District from 15 to 13.

John Mayer
John Mayer is a management consultant in the legal environment. He retired as court administrator/clerk of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in July 1999, after 20 years service to that court and 13 years as an administrator with the state courts in Michigan and Ohio.

Michigan Bar Journal Home
Archived Issues