Local News

New recommendations issued for additional federal judges in San Diego

The policymaking body for the federal judiciary issued new recommendations Tuesday for adding judgeships around the country — including six seats in the district court that handles criminal and civil cases in San Diego and Imperial counties.

In all, the Judicial Conference of the United States is seeking 79 new permanent judgeships — a slightly larger number than previously proposed in 2019.

The positions must be authorized by Congress, and judges recently testified in a House subcommittee hearing that the courts have been overwhelmed for years by rising caseloads. New judgeships haven’t been approved for the Southern District of California since 2003.

Previously, the Conference had recommended five seats for the Southern District of California, so the new recommendation adds one more.

The Southern District currently has 13 authorized judgeships, although five of those seats are vacant, to be filled with yet-to-be-announced nominees from President Joe Biden. Nine senior district judges who work part-time also pick up cases.

The Conference also walked back its previous recommendation for new judgeships on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, from five to two. The circuit, the largest in the nation, is still the only appeals court being floated for more judges.

In a February hearing held by the House’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, the prospect of adding five new seats to the 9th Circuit came with calls for dividing the circuit — a debate that has been ongoing for decades. Republican lawmakers said more judges may well be needed, but the circuit shouldn’t be allowed get even bigger.

Reducing that number to two could lessen the urgency of a drive to split the circuit. At least one bill has already been introduced calling for the circuit to split off California, Hawaii and two U.S. territories from the other seven western states.

In its latest recommendation, the Conference pointed to rising caseloads in specific districts across the country, evidence echoed by recent judicial testimony, including that from U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns in San Diego.

When considering weighted caseloads — an assessment that determines the amount of time each case type takes to complete — the Southern District in 2019 handled well above the national average, 634 cases per judge versus 535. The goal is around 430.

At the appellate level, the 9th Circuit had a backlog of more than 11,000 cases as of September.

The Conference, in its biannual meeting held virtually Tuesday, also called for greater security measures following the murder of U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas’ son at the family’s New Jersey home last year. The Conference pointed to civil unrest in the past year that included damage to more than 53 courthouses nationwide, and it plans to submit a funding request to address security vulnerabilities.