Federal caseload statistics released this week by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts show that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina is feeling the strain of being down a judge for the past seven years.
The court, which is based in Raleigh but has courthouses in Wilmington, New Bern, Greenville, Fayetteville and Elizabeth City, has had an open seat on the bench since December 31, 2005, when U.S. District Judge Malcolm Howard took senior status – the second longest vacancy in the federal courts. Since then there’s been little movement towards a nominee other than a short-lived effort in 2009.
Howard and Senior Judges W. Earl Britt and James C. Fox have been handling partial caseloads to ease the burden on the remaining three judges, each of whom had more than 700 assigned cases at the end of September, one of the largest per authorized judge caseloads in the country — fifth out of the 94 federal district courts.
But courts can only go so long depending entirely on help from the senior judges, said Charles Hall from the AOC’s Office of Public Affairs. “Understaffing for years puts an extra burden on every case, but especially on civil cases for which there is no right to a speedy trial,” he added.
That’s exactly what’s happened in the Eastern District, where for the year ending in September it took longer for a civil case to move from filing through trial — just under 45 months — than in any other district in the country except in California’s Eastern District. And for a nonjury trial, that number bumps up to four years.
And things are not likely to improve, given that Fox is now 84 and Britt, 80, unless and until Sens. Kay Hagan and Richard Burr address the vacancy and suggest some nominees to the President.