25 progressive groups urge Congress to expand number of federal judges

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More than two dozen progressive groups are calling on Congress to dramatically expand the number of federal district and appeals court judges.

In a letter sent Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s two leaders – Republican chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and ranking Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California – the groups noted that there hasn’t been a significant expansion in the number of federal judges in three decades, which they emphasized has led to an “overwhelmed judicial branch.” And they highlighted that increasing the number of judges would avert a “workload crisis and increase diversity on the federal courts.”

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“Because our judiciary has too few judges, struggling to manage too many cases, the administration of justice is being undermined in this country,” the letter states.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering recommendations made last summer by the Judicial Conference, which is headed up by Chief Justice John Roberts, to create new judgeships. The conference, which is made up of veteran federal judges, routinely recommends creating new judgeships to cope with the dramatic expansion in caseloads. The Democratic Party’s platform, adopted at the party’s national convention in August, calls for expanding the number of judges along the lines of recommendations from the Judicial Conference.

But the letter states that such a move would only be a first step that would be “insufficient to meet today’s crisis in our courts. The U.S. population has grown by nearly a third since the last time Congress comprehensively addressed the number of judgeships in 1990, but the Conference only recommends an 8 percent increase in judgeships.”

The groups note that the Judicial Conference’s calls for expansion “have been unheeded for decades, and as a result, the overwhelmed dockets of our federal courts have limited access to justice and effectively block many Americans from seeking relief for civil wrongs.”

The new push for a major lower federal court expansion comes after calls by progressives during the presidential election to add more seats to the Supreme Court, which is known as court reform by supporters and court packing by opponents. The calls grew louder as the Republican-controlled Senate – in the days before the Nov. 3 election – confirmed federal judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. President Trump’s conservative nominee replaced the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and expanded the conservative majority on the high court to 6-3

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President-elect Joe Biden has long expressed little enthusiasm for expanding the number of justices. But during the general election campaign, he said if elected he’d create a bipartisan commission to study court reform.

The issue has also come under the spotlight in Georgia’s twin Senate runoff elections, where the GOP’s Senate majority is at stake. Raphael Warnock, one of the two Democratic candidates, has refused to say whether he supports expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court.

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Republicans only have to win one of the two runoff contests to keep their majority in the Senate, which would make any moves to expand the number of lower federal court judges much more difficult to achieve.

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