U.S. House committee examines need to expand federal courts

Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C.-02, spoke at the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 24.

Population, caseloads are up, but number of judges remains stagnant

Creating new district and circuit court judgeships is now on the congressional agenda 30 years after the last legislative increase in 1990. While population and caseloads continue to grow at a rapid rate, the U.S. has added only 34 District Court judgeships and no Court of Appeals seats since 1991. A House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday brought judges and law professors to discuss the need for more judges, and how to navigate partisan politics in doing so.

Committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said “Access to justice is a constitutional guarantee, but when this promise meets the reality of an overburdened and understaffed court, too often cases may be delayed or rushed and justice short-changed.”

A bill introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in 2018 that sought to add 52 district judgeships after the 2020 election and restructure judicial districts nationwide gained bipartisan support. However, the bill failed to make it out of the committee before the legislative session concluded.

Committee member Rep. Deborah Ross, D-N.C., echoed the call for a change. She noted that North Carolina has had tremendous population growth without any increase of district court judges.

Ross blamed partisan division for the failure to make progress, pointing out that seat on the Eastern District of North Carolina sat vacant for more than ten years because both parties couldn’t agree on a judicial candidate.

Currently, there are five judges at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, eight at the Middle District, and six at the Western District. Special judges and magistrates within each district also serve various terms.

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C.-09, at U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 24.

Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., raised questions about the necessity of adding judges now, saying he’s worried that “expanding lower courts may be a ploy to render the Supreme Court less able effectively to manage them.”

Marin Levy, a law professor at Duke University, testified that the caseload per judge at the appellate level has risen significantly. Nationally, the figure increased by more than 20% from 237 in 1990 to 284 in 2019, crossing the benchmark of 255 set by the judicial conference.

Nadler said that the United States Court of Appeals handles 50,000 appeals, yet fewer than 100 make it to the Supreme Court, making it the last court for most litigants.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield

In a Feb. 21 New York Times article, Rep. G. K. Butterfield was reported to be urging the Biden administration to pick judges with “a diversity of experience in multiple settings and in multiple areas including experiences outside of the law” as part of the greater push for racially diverse candidates. Butterfield was a state superior court judge and a state Supreme Court associate justice from 2001 to 2002 before he ran and won a Congressional seat representing North Carolina’s First Congressional District.

At Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers and experts also spoke about the need to split up that the Ninth Court of Appeals District, which encompasses nine westernmost states and pacific islands. Several bills have been introduced during this Congressional session to add more district judgeships in Colorado and Idaho.

U.S. House Agriculture panel to key in on climate change and farming

State to release 3,500 incarcerated people under new settlement with civil rights groups

Lawsuit challenged constitutionality of their treatment during the pandemic

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety will release 3,500 people early from prison after settling a lawsuit which argued that their constitutional rights were violated by the treatment they have received during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a press release from the ACLU of North Carolina. The press release described the relief as among “the largest prison releases in the country achieved via COVID-19 litigation efforts.”

These 3,500 people will receive one of the three ways of relief within a 180-day period — some will be awarded lessened sentences, some will serve outside of prison through a program called Extended Limits of Confinement and others will be on post-release supervision or parole, according to a statement from the DPS. Currently, only those who are pregnant, on home or work leave with a release date this year, and others projected to be released this year qualify for the ELC program.

Originally filed in state court in April of 2020, the suit NC NAACP v. Cooper, involves multiple plaintiffs, including three incarcerated people and a family member, the NC NAACP, the ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network. The settlement was approved by Wake County Superior Court Judge Vinston Rozier, Jr.

Click here to view the “consent order for stay” which effectively puts the case on hold for 180 days as the agreement is implemented.

“What’s happening in North Carolina prisons is the convergence of two pandemics both fueled by racism and classism – COVID 19 and an unjust criminal legal system,” Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the NC NAACP said in the press release.

To date, 47 people have died of COVID-19 in North Carolina prisons, according to DPS press releases compiled by Carolina Public Press reporter Jordan Wilkie.

Rozier issued orders in June and August of last year, asking for a plan from the state and demanding more testing. In an order, Rozier called it necessary “to allow for early release of eligible individuals to the greatest and safest extent possible”.

He also appointed a special master, Thomas Maher, executive director of the Center for Science and Justice at Duke University, to ensure the state follows the rules after finding the state out of compliance with his previous orders.

Besides the initial 3,500 releases, the governor’s office also agreed to monitor and control the prison population, pledging to further send people home early if they were scheduled to be released within 90 days when a prison population grew by more than 10%.

The state will also adopt measures to educate and incentivize staff and residents to receive vaccines, and to strengthen safety measures related to transfers, providing PPE, as well as isolation for positive patients.

“This lawsuit was particularly necessary to protect the lives of incarcerated people with disabilities because we know many disabled people are at highest risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 due to underlying chronic medical conditions,” Susan H. Pollitt, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina said in the press release.

This settlement does not apply to county jails. Other individual petitions and complaints regarding incarceration conditions in jails and prisons are still filed frequently.

NC legislative committee takes yet another misstep on unemployment insurance

This morning, the Finance Committee of the North Carolina House approved House Bill 107, which, among its largely technical provisions, would make two significant changes to state unemployment insurance policy: 

  • it would reinstate work search requirements for individuals making non-COVID-19-related unemployment insurance claims, and 
  • it would hold the base tax rate for employers at just 1.9%, rather than following the planned increase that currently contained in state law. 

The decision to hold employer tax rates at the current low rate is a mistake. 

Back in 2013, when lawmakers and Gov. McCrory approved House Bill 4 — the bill that imposed significant cuts to worker benefits — they also included a trigger that would have raised the State Unemployment Tax Act (SUTA) base tax rate in order to ensure that employer contributions into the state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund are sufficient to keep the system solvent — a major priority of legislative leaders.  

At present, North Carolina’s tax rate is the fourth lowest in the country.  

Meanwhile, as national experts, state researchers, and media outlets have repeatedly noted, North Carolina has the least effective unemployment insurance system in the country because it serves too few jobless workers, with too little wage replacement for too short a time. 

A glance at the latest data from the third quarter for southeastern states further demonstrates how our program has fallen behind. North Carolina trails only Florida for the number of people exhausting state unemployment insurance before finding a job, is only barely ahead of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee in the average weekly benefit amount it pays, and in 2019 was worst in the country in terms of the number of jobless workers who receive unemployment insurance.

Engaging in a “race-to-the-bottom” competition with other southeastern states when it comes to supporting the economy is not the right path for our state. If we have any hope of improving what research shows has been a very unequal recovery, North Carolina policymakers should be focused on driving policy toward achieving more equitable outcomes, and be deeply concerned that their policy choices are driving a wedge between people and critical supports. 

Policymakers should instead follow the expert advice of a wide array of economists to build an unemployment insurance system that: a) minimizes the harm to families caused by job losses, and b) stabilizes the economy by helping to maintains consumer spending. 

At present, North Carolina is failing on both counts by maintaining a system that: 

  • provides 14 fewer weeks than the standard 26 weeks of state benefits, 
  • pays extremely low benefits that, on average provide just 23 cents per dollar of the average worker’s in prior wages (the national standard is at least 50 cents), and 
  • reaches less than 9% of those who are jobless, compared to the standard of reaching at least 50 percent of the unemployed. 

A broken unemployment insurance system increases hardship, worsens health outcomes, reduces lifelong earnings and economic mobility for people, and doesn’t do enough to stabilize consumer spending — a key to supporting demand for goods and services of businesses (i.e. employers) and supporting economic recovery.?The National Employment and Law Project noted that due to its shorter benefit duration alone, a typical North Carolina jobless worker could have received as much as $24,000 less in unemployment insurance benefits over the course of the last recession thanks to the 2013 cuts. 

The bottom line: this legislation ignores the desperate need to repair and improve the system for jobless workers (click here for a list of simple and necessary policy changes that lawmakers should enact in 2021) and, indeed, erects another barrier by reviving administratively costly work search requirements. 

By keeping employer taxes low while refusing?to improve things for workers and their families, lawmakers have signaled that working people will continue to be an afterthought in legislative policymaking and are doubling down on an economic approach that will continue to serve us all poorly. 

Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget and Tax Center. 


Game-changing one-dose vaccine could be in states’ hands shortly

Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

WASHINGTON —States struggling to provide enough COVID-19 vaccines are likely just a few days away from a pivotal development in the vaccination race: the availability of a shot that requires only one dose.

The game-changing Johnson & Johnson vaccine would differ from the two current shots by Pfizer and Moderna in several critical ways. By requiring just one dose, individuals won’t need to return several weeks later for an additional shot.

That will be significant help in rural areas, and other places where residents are far from vaccination sites.

It also has easier storage requirements than the current shots, which need extra-cold temperatures, and it can be kept in a standard refrigerator for at least three months

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is awaiting emergency-use authorization from a critical Food and Drug Administration panel on Friday, followed by the agency’s final decision, expected shortly.

The company is under contract to provide 100 million doses by the end of June, which would help to reduce a bottleneck of too-few vaccines for the huge national demand.

But J&J has faced challenges to ramp up its production, with fewer doses ready to ship out than what’s outlined in its federal contract. The company has acknowledged the difficulties, and is now teaming up with French drugmaker Sanofi to help boost its output.

“This has been an unprecedented effort to scale up manufacturing for a vaccine against a disease that didn’t even exist more than a year ago,” Dr. Richard Nettles, a J&J vice president, told lawmakers during a congressional hearing Tuesday.

Maryland manufacturer

Critical to that production effort has been a Maryland biomedical plant, Emergent BioSolutions, which is manufacturing the drug substance for the Johnson & Johnson vaccines at its Baltimore facility.

The company also relies on production facilities in Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where the vaccine vials are filled and finished.

President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisers say they’ve also been working with Johnson & Johnson to ramp up production.

“We’ve helped them with equipment and raw materials, which I think is helping to increase greater capacity and accelerate,” Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House’s COVID-19 task force, said on Wednesday.

Once federal regulators grant the green light, 4 million doses are ready to be shipped, with 20 million to be delivered by the end of March.

Zients said he spoke with governors on Tuesday about the plans to roll out the vaccine “without delay” if authorization is granted, using the same distribution formulas as with the previous vaccines.

“It is going to be game-changing because more people are going to have access to the vaccine in ways that are more convenient to them,” said Neil Sehgal, assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health.

An FDA analysis of the vaccine released Wednesday found it provides strong protection against severe disease and death from COVID-19. It had a 72 percent overall efficacy rate in the U.S., and 64 percent in South Africa, where one of the highly contagious variants emerged.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have high efficacy rates. But Seghal and other public health experts have emphasized that the J&J vaccine has a higher efficacy rate when looking specifically at preventing severe COVID-19 infections, and the company’s trials showed it provided “complete” protection against hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus.

“If the goal is to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, there’s no difference” between the J&J vaccine and the ones from Pfizer and Moderna, he said.

More vaccines on the way

The J&J vaccine is far from the last in the regulatory pipeline.

Maryland’s Emergent also has ties to another vaccine that may come before federal regulators in the coming months: The company has a manufacturing contract with U.K.-based AstraZeneca, which has a vaccine that is in clinical trials in the U.S.

The J&J vaccine’s Maryland ties won’t give the state a leg up in seeking doses, which are allocated through the federal government. Still, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott wrote to Johnson & Johnson last month, asking the company to sell 300,000 of its vaccine doses directly to the city, arguing that doing so would help the city to speed up the delivery of shots to residents of color.

That’s unlikely to happen. After Friday’s all-day hearing of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee and then a final sign-off by the agency’s top officials, the doses would head around the country in the same proportions as the Pfizer and Moderna shots.

“We’ll be proud to be saving people in other states too,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters earlier this month after touring the Emergent facility.