With its full complement of three federal judges, the proverbial "no vacancy" sign might as well be hanging outside U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge.
But an uptick in criminal filings and about 1,200 unresolved civil filings from the 2016 floods, coupled with Senior U.S. District Judge James Brady's sudden death in late 2017, have the court's chief judge putting out the proverbial "help needed" sign instead.
Shelly Dick, the chief judge, points to recent statistics showing U.S. District Court for the Baton Rouge-based Middle District of Louisiana, which encompasses nine parishes, is one of the busiest of the 94 federal judicial districts in the nation.
For the 12-month span ending June 30, 2018, the Middle District ranked 12th in the country in annual filings per judge with an average of 787 incoming civil and criminal filings assigned to each judge. In addition, each Middle District judge managed another 826 pending cases during that same stretch, with the district ranked 13th in pending cases per judge.
When a “weighted filings” formula was applied to the Middle District’s incoming caseload per judge, in which case types are weighed based on their degree of difficulty and time required to handle them, the Baton Rouge-based district's ranking jumped to fourth.
"We need some assistance here," Dick said during a recent interview in her office at the Russell B. Long Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse. "We need to address our workload somehow. Is that a fourth judge?"
From mid-2014 until the end of 2017, U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge was humming along with its three federal district judges — Dick, Brian Jackson and John deGravelles, who replaced Brady — plus Brady, who was on senior status.
Dick, Jackson and deGravelles were nominated by then-President Barack Obama. Brady's 1999 nomination came from then-President Bill Clinton.
When Brady vacated his seat at the end of 2013 and assumed senior status, he didn't opt for a reduced caseload but continued to maintain a full docket until he died in December 2017.
Federal Senior Judge James “Jim” Brady, who settled East Baton Rouge Parish's nearly 50-year-old school desegregation case, died Saturday even…
Since then, the three federal district judges in Baton Rouge have divvied up the quarter of the court's docket that Brady had handled.
"We lost 25% of our capacity," Dick said.
The result has been a logjam in Baton Rouge federal court.
"Lawyers are coming in and saying when can we get a trial date, and we're saying 2021," she said. "That tells you how dire it is."
Dick noted that several judges from the New Orleans-based Eastern District of Louisiana have helped out since Brady's death, and judges in other districts outside Louisiana have offered assistance.
The increased caseload also is impacting lawyers' requests for expedited consideration of motions, which in turn raises the cost of litigation for lawyers and their clients, Dick said.
Two years ago, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended that Congress create more than 50 new federal judgeships in nearly two dozen district courts, but U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge was not among those.
"We're in a waiting period," Dick acknowledged.
The Middle District's plight hasn't gone unnoticed by Louisiana's two U.S. senators, both Republicans. The Senate confirms judicial nominations.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy sits on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and said he supports the addition of another federal judgeship in Baton Rouge.
"At this time, I don't believe it is likely that the Middle District will receive a recommendation for a fourth judge," he said in a written statement. "But I will keep making the case for one. Chief Judge Shelly Dick should receive the resources she needs to efficiently handle cases."
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, who Dick noted recently visited the Middle District, said he is sympathetic to the Middle District's dilemma.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," he said in a statement. "As we work with President Trump to fill the judicial vacancies in Louisiana, I am committed to assess our needs and ensure we have the resources required."
One of those vacancies, in the Eastern District of Louisiana, was recently filled by former Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Greg Guidry. Vacancies also exist in the 42-parish Western District of Louisiana.
The 13-parish Eastern District ranked first in the nation in annual filings per judge with an average of 1,491 incoming civil and criminal filings assigned to each judge in the yearlong span ending June 30, 2018. The district also ranked second in pending cases per judge with 3,207. It's weighted filings ranking also was No. 1.
The Eastern District encompasses Assumption, Jefferson, Lafourche, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Terrebonne and Washington parishes.
The Middle District covers Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberville, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Helena, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes.
The Western District has courts in Alexandria, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Monroe and Shreveport. That district's rankings as of mid-2018 in terms of annual filings per judge, pending cases per judge and weighted filings per judge were all in the low 80s.
The Judicial Conference recently authorized the appointment of a third full-time magistrate judge for the Middle District, but Dick said such an addition won't reduce the workload of the federal district judges in Baton Rouge. It will, however, help the two magistrate judges in Baton Rouge — Richard Bourgeois Jr. and Erin Wilder-Doomes — who handle a thousand cases apiece, she said.
Lawyers with at least five years of experience who are looking for a "demanding and wide-ranging" job for the next eight years that currently …
"That's just outrageous," Dick said.
Magistrate judges participate in criminal cases by conducting some hearings, but in felony cases they cannot sentence or take guilty pleas. In civil cases, magistrate judges may be designated by district judges to conduct trials.