Dear Congress: Cen­tral Val­ley needs more judges

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY THE FRESNO BEE ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

Un­like the pres­i­dent or mem­bers of Congress, fed­eral judges do their work largely out of pub­lic view. That’s why it is note­wor­thy that the chief judge for the U.S. Dis­trict Court’s Eastern Dis­trict, Lawrence J. O’Neill of Fresno, has pub­licly called on Cal­i­for­nia’s two U.S. se­na­tors and the Cen­tral Val­ley’s House mem­bers to get more judges for the re­gion.

The rea­son is sim­ple: The Eastern Dis­trict is among the busiest court sys­tems in the na­tion. Eastern Dis­trict judges have twice the caseload of the na­tional av­er­age of their col­leagues. And if some­thing isn’t done — and fast — O’Neill says a key part of the ju­di­cial process will grind to a halt. Fac­ing pend­ing re­tire­ments, the only way for­ward if no new judges join the bench is for the Eastern Dis­trict to stop hear­ing civil cases, O’Neill says.

The ju­di­ciary is the third part of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Hav­ing a ju­di­cial sys­tem “is a right pre­scribed by the Con­sti­tu­tion,” he notes. “This should not be a beg­ging sit­u­a­tion.”

O’Neill is ab­so­lutely right. There is no ex­cuse not to get new judge­ships cre­ated for the dis­trict. Congress needs to pass a bill to that end so Pres­i­dent Trump can nom­i­nate new judges.

O’Neill first is­sued his call in a let­ter to the Eastern Dis­trict’s fed­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tives last June. In mid-Feb­ru­ary he re-is­sued it. In the let­ter, O’Neill shared the fol­low­ing:

The last time the Eastern Dis­trict got a new judge­ship was 1978. Then, the dis­trict’s pop­u­la­tion was 2.5 mil­lion. To­day it is more than 8 mil­lion.

The eastern in­land dis­trict is sprawl­ing, run­ning from the Los An­ge­les-Kern County line on the south to the Ore­gon bor­der on the north. Key cities are Fresno, Sacra­mento, Modesto, Bak­ers­field and Red­ding. The dis­trict in­cludes four fed­eral pris­ons; 188 fed­eral build­ings; 13 na­tional forests; nine na­tional parks, in­clud­ing Yosemite and Se­quoiaKings Canyon; 19 state pris­ons; and 923,000 acres of fed­eral land.

The six judges are each re­spon­si­ble for 900 cases at any time. The na­tional av­er­age caseload for fed­eral judges is 425 cases.

Un­less some­thing is done fast, the caseload will rise to about 1,250 per judge when two of the cur­rent judges re­tire at the end of this year and early in 2020. At that level, O’Neill said han­dling civil cases will be un­ten­able.

“Jus­tice will not be done in civil cases be­cause they will be the first to be shelved,” he said. “The rea­son for that is the Con­sti­tu­tion has a speedy-trial right to any­one in­volved in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.”

An ex­am­ple of a civil case would be a farmer su­ing an ad­join­ing prop­erty owner over wa­ter rights. Re­solv­ing a wa­ter case might be the dif­fer­ence be­tween a farmer stay­ing in agri­cul­ture or not.

Any crime com­mit­ted on fed­eral prop­erty is han­dled by the U.S. courts, as are any vi­o­la­tions of fed­eral law or the Con­sti­tu­tion. In ad­di­tion, O’Neill said in­mates in state pris­ons are adept at fil­ing cases al­leg­ing their civil rights were vi­o­lated, which be­comes a fed­eral mat­ter.

O’Neill has the white hair and com­posed man­ner of some­one Hol­ly­wood would cast as a judge. His of­fice high up in the Robert E. Coyle U.S. Court­house in down­town Fresno af­fords an amaz­ing view of the snow­capped Sierra to the east. A fed­eral judge earns $208,000 a year.

But the days are long and the work can be gru­el­ing. O’Neill gets to the of­fice typ­i­cally by 6 a.m. to take ad­van­tage of some quiet time be­fore the court clerks ar­rive and tri­als or hear­ings be­gin. Those make up the bulk of the day, and then he quits around 5 p.m. and takes home le­gal ma­te­rial to read af­ter din­ner. That in­cludes “hun­dreds of pages” of brief­ings by lawyers, pro­ba­tion re­ports and let­ters from crime vic­tims and de­fen­dants, and their fam­ily and friends. The next day, it starts all over.

He’s done it for 30 years: 21 in the fed­eral sys­tem, and be­fore that, nine as a Su­pe­rior Court judge. In less than a year O’Neill plans to re­tire com­pletely to en­joy his fam­ily, in­clud­ing grand­chil­dren.

“To be at­tracted to this job, you have to be at­tracted to pub­lic ser­vice,” he says.

That is the same mo­ti­va­tion ex­pressed by Cal­i­for­nia Sens. Dianne Fe­in­stein and Ka­mala Har­ris, and their Repub­li­can and Demo­crat col­leagues in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, in­clud­ing Reps. Jim Costa, DFresno, TJ Cox, D-Fresno and Devin Nunes, R-Tu­lare.

Fe­in­stein is the rank­ing Demo­crat on the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, which con­firms fed­eral judges nom­i­nated by the pres­i­dent. O’Neill wants her and the oth­ers to in­tro­duce an emer­gency bill to cre­ate five new judge­ships at a min­i­mum.

O’Neill also hopes Val­ley res­i­dents will write the elected of­fi­cials and “de­mand that we get the re­sources we need to run the fed­eral courts.”

Much has been made about Pres­i­dent Trump’s go­ing around Congress to fund a bor­der wall, with some law­mak­ers call­ing it a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis.

A real cri­sis is oc­cur­ring ev­ery day in the Cen­tral Val­ley’s un­der­staffed fed­eral courts. Thank­fully, it is one Congress can solve. It is time for Sens. Fe­in­stein and Har­ris, along with Reps. Costa, Cox and Nunes, to get new judge­ships for the Eastern Dis­trict.

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