Judges delayed, justice denied in nation’s courts

What does that mean? High costs and great uncertainty for businesses litigating suits while trying to take part in the slow economic recovery. They can’t clear their balance sheets, and that means they can’t hire or expand until they do. Understaffed courts, unable to deliver speedy justice, hurt our country’s rule of law and ability to attract business and growth.
 
The impact on individuals is just as crushing as cases drag on for years. And judges — like all of us — can handle only so much work. At some point, it becomes a vicious cycle in which worn-out judges leave the bench, worsening the situation for those who remain and delaying even longer someone’s day in court.
 
Unfortunately, a 900-day vacancy is bad but not uncommon or the worst of the worst. Other seats have sat empty 1100, 1400, 1900, nearly 2,300 days. The caseload for a single judge on these benches with declared emergencies ranges from more than 500 to close to 1000 in some instances. That has our courts at the breaking point.
 
Surely we’ve all had enough. So what can be done to fix it? Hundreds of lawyer-leaders are preparing to come from all over the country to visit Capitol Hill and discuss solutions. Filling judicial vacancies and reducing delays in the confirmation and nominations process is a top priority of the ABA, and its annual fly-in, “ABA Day.” State and local bar leaders are traveling to Washington April 12-14 to ask their congressional representatives for help on this issue and others that hurt access to justice.
 
What members of the American legal profession from both sides of the aisle ask for is a new, concerted effort by all parties to put aside the backbiting, game-playing and foot-dragging. Congress should do so not for the judges, or to benefit any particular political party, or even because a group like the ABA asks them to. The reason to do it is because being able “seek redress” in the courts that is fair and timely is at the core of our nation, a fundamental right that we as Americans enjoy. 
 
From announcing nominations to holding hearings to scheduling a vote, each step can be done more quickly. Every player in the process can do more to resolve the backlog. And, importantly, let’s schedule up or down votes that focus on a judge’s experience and talent. Qualifications should rule the day and the debate.
 
Why change? Because as government and civic leaders we share a fundamental belief that America is special and its Constitution is the gold standard for the world. As a Cuban refugee, I know constitutions can become meaningless words if the spirit is not upheld. It is not the spirit of our Founding Fathers to leave nearly 100 seats on the federal bench open for months or years on end. It is not in their spirit to trigger delays that damage the public’s access to justice and erode the average citizen’s respect for the courts. It’s time to set a new course and everyone will play a part in doing so, together.
 
Stephen N. Zack is the president of the American Bar Association.