How many civil trials have you seen lately?
Honestly. If you can count them on more than one hand, you’re the exception. Part of the reason — and it’s a big part, as this WSJ story explains — is the explosion of criminal prosecutions, which by law take precedence over civil cases.
Some of the factors at play: There are more criminal cases related to drugs and immigration crowding the docket. Then there is the proliferation of more-obscure federal criminal laws and regulations that carry criminal penalties. Exacerbating the problem are vacancies on the federal bench.
Despite the surge in case loads, the number of authorized federal judgeships has risen just 4% since 1990. Of the 677 district court judgeships currently authorized, about 9.5% are vacant, according to the Journal.
Meanwhile, the number of pending federal criminal cases has jumped 70% in the past decade — to over 76,000, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
The upshot is that fewer civil litigants are having their day in court. Instead of waiting, many are settling their disputes.
That can be appropriate in many cases, but there is “no shortage of plaintiffs who wind up taking inadequate settlements” or businesses that make unnecessary payments to end the expense and uncertainty of litigation, Ian Millhiser, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, told the Journal.
W. Royal Furgeson, a senior federal judge in Dallas, told the Journal that if decisions on contracts, mergers and intellectual-property rights “can’t be reached through quick and prompt justice, things unravel for business.”
The story highlights a widely watched intellectual-property fight between Google and Oracle has stalled to an indefinite halt. The two-year-old case, in which Oracle alleges that Google’s Android smartphone software infringes its copyrights and patents, was scheduled to go to trial last month. Judge William Alsup postponed it “due to a lengthy criminal trial.”
For two and a half years, Amy Bullock has been waiting for her day in court seeking damages for the death of her husband in a 2006 truck accident. Her suit was filed in Denver federal court two years later against Daimler Trucks North America, formerly Freightline.
Daimler disputes the merits of Bullock’s claim, which revolves around the truck’s safety design and whether it had adequate safety restraints in its sleeper compartment.
The trial has been postponed twice, once in November 2010, about two weeks before the it was supposed to start, and again this October to make way for a firearms case. Now it’s slated for March 2012.
Said Bullock: “I’m looking forward to having my day in court but, honestly, I feel like it may never happen.”
By Joe Palazzolo
Read more: http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2011/11/10/glut-of-criminal-cases-puts-the-squeeze-on-civil-litigation/