In Rare Appeal, Federal Judge Begs Senators To Fill Vacancies On His Court

A U.S. district court in California faces "judicial catastrophe" without two more judges, says retiring Chief Judge Lawrence O'Neill.

WASHINGTON ― It’s not often that a federal judge pleads with the White House and senators to fill vacancies on his or her court. But in the case of U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill, his court’s workload has become so unmanageable that it’s come to begging for help.

“I write this letter out of concern for some 8.5 million people who live in the Eastern District of California, with my intention to prevent an impending, acute, and judicial catastrophe,” O’Neill wrote in a letter Friday to White House counsel Pat Cipollone and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris. “The statement sounds serious and ominous. It is both. It may also sound like an exaggeration. It is not.”

O’Neill, who is the chief judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, said his court is about to lose the equivalent of one-third of its district judges to retirement in the next three months. Each of the court’s six district judges handles roughly 900 cases at any given time. That’s more than double the national average caseload for district judges, which is 425 cases.

The court hasn’t expanded its number of seats since 1978, either.

Unless the White House and Senate move quickly to fill two impending vacancies on the court, O’Neill says there is a high probability that some civil jury trials will “cease to exist” in the district and some criminal cases will have to be dismissed altogether because it is taking too long for them to go to trial.

“This result will be abhorrent to everything the judges of our District believe in, including equal justice, due process, and access to the courts,” he adds.

Here’s a copy of O’Neill’s letter:

O’Neill is one of the two judges retiring in the coming months. He is taking senior status on Feb. 2, 2020, along with Judge Morrison England Jr., who is taking senior status on Dec. 17, 2019. Senior status is when a judge has worked long enough to take a reduced caseload or retire completely while still receiving a full salary. Neither O’Neill nor England plan to continue working. Both gave more than a year’s notice of their retirement.

The White House, which routinely announces its intent to nominate people to various federal court seats, has not indicated plans to nominate anyone to this court. Typically, the White House works with both of a state’s U.S. senators to pick judicial nominees. President Donald Trump has ignored that tradition with appeals court nominees but mostly stuck to it with district court picks.

Harris spokeswoman Meaghan Lynch said the senator knows how crucial it is to fill court vacancies, though she didn’t say anything specifically about O’Neill’s court.

“Senator Harris believes a functioning judiciary is critical,” Lynch said in a statement. “That’s why she and Senator Feinstein are committed to working together to find qualified candidates.”

Feinstein spokesman Adam Russell said the senator is aware of the dire situation on O’Neill’s court.

“Senator Feinstein understands the critical role of judges in the Eastern District and shares Judge O’Neill’s concerns about two upcoming vacancies,” Russell said in a statement. “She and Senator Harris are working to ensure that qualified, mainstream jurists are promptly nominated to fill those vacancies.”

A White House spokeswoman did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on whether the president’s team is moving quickly to nominate people to O’Neill’s court.

This story has been updated to include comments from Harris’ and Feinstein’s office.

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