Seyfarth Synopsis: Judge Dale Drozd in the Eastern District of California issued a standing order establishing procedures limiting the access of civil litigants as an emergency measure to deal with an onerous judicial workload amid reports of severe under-funding of judicial resources.

As you may have noticed, Washington, D.C. has not earned a reputation as the place where “things get done.” The political gridlock there is having deleterious effects on the California litigating public. For years, the Eastern District of California (EDCA) has valiantly coped with one of the highest judicial caseloads in the nation. With the EDCA’s population growing by 5.5 million people during the last 40 years, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts has recommended the creation of at least six additional EDCA judgeships. Yet Congress has declined to fund a single new judgeship, leaving the EDCA with just four full-time District Judges and four Senior District Judges (with significantly decreased caseloads). Meanwhile, the Northern District of California, with about the same population, has 14 full-time judges. Go figure.

And it gets still worse. Two full-time EDCA district judges recently took senior status, and thus have lower caseload expectations. One Senior Judge assumed senior inactive status, lowering his caseload to zero. The EDCA, already grossly overburdened, now has two vacant, full-time judgeships, waiting for Congress to act.

Sensing that enough is enough, Judge Dale A. Drozd of the EDCA’s Fresno division has taken drastic action. On February 4, 2020, he issued a remarkable standing order. While the EDCA’s judicial vacancies remain unfilled, he will follow special procedures to deal with the “ongoing judicial emergency”: (1) All new civil cases will proceed without assignment of a district judge, and will be assigned only a magistrate judge. (2) All civil motions will be decided without oral argument. (3) No new trial dates will be set in civil cases. This order supersedes EDCA Local Rule 230(g), and assigns to the designated magistrate all motions for class certification and all motions seeking approval of collective or class action settlements. Judge Drozd implemented these emergency procedures “reluctantly,” while recognizing that they are not “conducive to the fair administration of justice.”

Judge Drozd was not the first judicial officer to respond to the EDCA’s ongoing caseload crisis. Previously, the EDCA convinced the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to apportion additional magistrates to the EDCA, and to begin a court clerk program to provide each judge an additional clerk. And on June 19, 2018, then Chief Judge Lawrence O’Neill wrote the White House Counsel and California’s Senators to warn that a continuing failure to address the EDCA’s caseload crisis would result in catastrophic consequences.

Judge O’Neill’s letter, predicting dire consequences from continued inaction from Washington, D.C., was prophetic. The catastrophic consequences foretold are now laid out in Judge Drozd’s order. The people who pay for the national government’s failure to provide adequate judiciary resources are the members of the California litigating public. Here’s our note of hope that Judge Drozd’s remarkable stance will reach the ear of our national leaders.