New tool tracks performance of federal court judges

Greg Munno is a research professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.“The strength of the courts of law has ever been the greatest security which can be offered to personal independence.” – Alexis De Tocqueville

The courts are perhaps the least understood, studied and transparent branch of the federal government. Article III judges receive lifetime appointments and are not subject to elections or the Freedom of Information Act. Electronic access to court documents, unlike the Congressional Record, costs money.

Here at TRAC (the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a joint program of the Whitman and Newhouse Schools at Syracuse University) we’ve long wanted to build data tools that provided insight into how the judiciary works. TRAC has been building such tools for 25 years, relying on extensive knowledge of the Freedom of Information Act, database construction and data mining to provide unique insights into the practices of federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

For the reasons mentioned above, however, the courts have been a tougher nut to crack.

In 2012, we were able to unveil a criminal sentencing tool that examines the number of people sentenced by each individual federal district judge, and for how long. It quickly won subscribers, including the Justice Department.

It took a lot more effort to add tracking for each federal civil court case, which outnumber criminal cases nearly 4 to 1.  But thanks in no small part to the support of Knight Foundation, we persevered. In October, TRAC released a Web application that allows the public to analyze the number of pending and closed cases handled by every federal district court judge in the country (nearly 1,000 judges in total), along with the time it takes those judges to close cases of different types such as civil rights, product liability and intellectual property.  The custom application automatically compares the findings for each judge to other judges in the same district and to the nation as whole.

Often, the stories behind the numbers are as interesting as the numbers themselves. For instance, in isolating the judges with the largest number of cases pending and closed in the past year, it becomes apparent that those numbers are driven by newsworthy cases. For example, the judge with the most bankruptcy cases in the nation has been dealing with issues related to the bankruptcy of the investment firm once run by Bernard Madoff, while the judge with the most personal injury cases handles torts brought by 9/11 first responders and cleanup crews. We issued a report on Oct. 23 on judges with notable caseloads.

When we first launched the new civil and updated criminal tool Oct. 14, TRAC also issued a report on national trends mined from the tool and other data sources. Findings included:

  • Caseloads have jumped 28 percent in the past two decades while the number of federal judges has increased only 4 percent.
  • The time from when a civil matter is filed to when it is scheduled for trial has grown by 63 percent in the last 20 years.
  • There’s a surprising variation in the caseloads of individual judges and for districts as a whole, and not always in ways that one might expect. For example, the rural Eastern District of Texas, which centers on the small city of Tyler, is the busiest district court per full-time judge in the country. A full, sortable list of district rankings is part of the free public report.

If you would like to know more about TRAC or the Judge Information Center, contact Research Professor Greg Munno at [email protected] or at 315-443-3613.