By MARK WILSON
Evansville Courier & Press
Indiana’s federal courts outpaced the nation for prisoner petitions, civil rights and Social Security cases filed last year, feeding a growing demand on its federal judges.
With its rising number of both civil and criminal case filings, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana has grown to become the sixth busiest district court in the country, according to federal court statistics.
Yet the court, which covers 60 Indiana counties and Indianapolis, Evansville and Terre Haute, has not had a judgeship added since 1978.
There were 3,498 cases filed in district court for the year ending Sept. 30, 2013 — a 14.5 percent increase over the previous period.
Those figures included 2,975 civil cases and felony criminal cases involving 474 defendants. Drug cases — 167, of which only 18 involved marijuana — accounted for most of the new criminal defendants in federal court last year, followed by fraud, firearms and explosives and sex offense cases.
Prisoner petitions for habeas corpus [judicial review] and other reasons made up 30 percent of the Southern District’s new civil cases last year, compared to about 20 percent for other districts. Civil rights cases accounted for nearly 20 percent and Social Security cases 10 percent.
As the number of cases continues to increase so does the time it takes to resolve them. The median time between filing and trial for civil cases in the district increased from 32 months in 2010 to almost 36 months in 2013, said Southern District Clerk Laura Briggs.
“It is fair to say that is a reflection of the significant caseload increase since 2010,” she said.
Despite this, Congress continues to focus its attention on states where high profile issues such as immigration are more of a problem than in states such as Indiana, said Judge Richard L. Young.
Young, a former Vanderburgh County Circuit Court judge, serves as chief judge for the Southern District of Indiana courts.
The five judges and one senior judge of the Southern Indiana federal court district handled an average of 724 cases per during the 12-month period between Sept. 30, 2012 and 2013 — numbers weighted to account for the complexity of case types.
That compares to a national judicial caseload average of 545 cases or 553 cases per judge for the other Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin federal district courts that make up the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The general standard used for determining the need for an additional judgeship is 430 weighted cases per judge, Briggs said.
“We’re very close to being declared an ‘emergency district’ but it seems like we’re always right on the edge,” Young said.
He attributes the increasing caseload to the number of prison facilities in the Southern District and the increasing population in the Indianapolis metropolitan area.
Those prisons include Indiana’s maximum security Wabash Valley Correctional Facility and the United States Penitentiary both near Terre Haute.
“We’ve been authorized for another judge since 1997. Actually, our numbers would justify probably two or three additional judges,” Young said.
However, Congress has yet to approve that judgeship. A Judicial Conference led by United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and made up of the chief judges from each appeals court circuit and a representative from each district court governs the federal judicial system.
It can recommend adding more judges, but it can’t fund or appoint them. Young said it appears unlikely that Congress will appoint additional judges for the district anytime soon.
“The judges and the magistrates, they do an excellent job handling their caseloads and dockets. They are just faced with a lot of motions and there are only so many man hours,” said James Johnson, an Evansville attorney. “There can be a wait for motions to get decided.”
Johnson frequently practices in federal court. He said the demand on the district’s judges is not just a problem for attorneys but also for clients.
“It’s important for people to believe they are going to have access to the courts and judges. Clients get a trial date, and whether it’s federal court or state court, whenever people have a trial date they have certain expectations that their cases will be resolved.”
The Southern District has four divisions, with courthouses in Indianapolis, Evansville, Terre Haute and New Albany. It’s five judges share duties, splitting their time between cases in Indianapolis and the other divisions. The judges are assisted by a senior judge — a partially retired judge who helps out — and seven magistrate judges.
Young presides over Evansville cases but frequently finds himself on the bench in Indianapolis as well.
“All of the judges are working hard. Technology helps some. We are working long hours and trying to get the issues resolved in all these cases, but the higher the number of cases, the longer it takes to complete them,” Young said.
Rising caseloads take a toll on support staff, too, Briggs said.
“We are fortunate to have a dedicated and skilled staff, but they have labored under the increasing strain. I do not feel there has been any diminishment to the quality of work produced, but the stress level has risen and hours worked has increased,” she said.