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Why Is the Court System So Slow?

3 minute read

No one knows which Founding Father came up with the idea to pop the words speedy trial into the Sixth Amendment, but whoever he was, he’d be awfully disappointed today.

It’s no secret that the American justice system moves with the speed of a tectonic plate. Defendants who can’t afford bail languish in jail for years before going to trial. Civil cases in federal courts take an average of nearly two years to reach a resolution from the time of the initial filing, according to a 2010 government study, with the Washington, D.C., court topping the list at an average 40.7 months. The average patent case takes 2.4 years. Class actions like the Exxon Valdez oil-spill case can drag on for decades.

There are a lot of reasons for the crawling pace, but perhaps the biggest factor is money, especially in the state systems. The recession of 2001 and the greater one in 2008 led to hiring freezes and budget cuts across the country, with big states like California, Texas and Florida–and their equally large criminal-justice systems–getting hit particularly hard. In Hawaii, the entire state judicial apparatus is funded with less than 2.5% of the state budget. In Louisiana, it was as low as 0.5% in 2011.

Defense attorneys in criminal cases slow things down further. Repeated motions for postponements and continuances may mean longer pre-trial incarceration for their clients, but they also reduce the odds of eventual conviction, as witnesses’ memories grow cloudy and overworked prosecutors become more willing to plea-bargain.

Funding is less of a problem in the federal system. The 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act included $6.78 billion in discretionary funding for the federal judiciary. The bigger issue at the federal level is politics.

Thanks to Washington’s permanent state of gridlock, Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat is not the only one that has gone cold waiting for a replacement. There are currently 91 total vacancies in the federal court system. Of those vacancies, there are 60 appointees (including a fellow named Merrick Garland) awaiting confirmation votes in the Senate.

While this isn’t the first time Congress has stymied a President’s judicial nominees, intransigence during President Obama’s two terms in office has broken records, with a 112% increase in the number of judicial vacancies from 2008 to 2016, according to the Brookings Institution. Short-term politics is one thing; justice for all is another. For politicians on both sides of the aisle, choosing between the two should be an easy call.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com