‘Judicial emergency’ results in lack of justice for Kern County residents

February 26, 2020 | 10:28 am


The Central Valley’s federal district court has instituted a “judicial emergency” order due to a shortage of judges, and thousands of Kern County residents — including clients of Chain | Cohn | Stiles — are being left with a feeling of injustice.

Federal Judge Dale A. Drozd of the U.S. Eastern District Court of California, the federal judicial district that includes Bakersfield and the southern Central Valley area, stated that the judicial emergency order “will seriously hinder the administration of justice” in the district.

“These are uncharted waters for this court,” Drozd wrote in his order. “The emergency procedures … are being implemented reluctantly.”

The district, which serves 8 million Californians is supposed to have six full-time judges — three in Fresno and three in Sacramento, said Matt Clark, senior partner and personal injury lawyer with Chain | Cohn | Stiles. But in the past two months, three judges in Fresno have assumed reduced work status or inactive status. Drozd will now be presiding over some 1,050 civil actions and 625 criminal cases.

“We have one judge” in Fresno, Clark told The Bakersfield Californian. “We are the single most impacted district in the country.”

For media coverage, see the links below.

The emergency is already affecting hundreds of local cases and local families, possibly thousands. They include:

Joan Johnson has penned letters to local elected officials, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, addressing the judicial emergency. Federal judges are nominated by presidents and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. No judges in the Eastern District have been appointed by President Trump, though Republicans have been the majority party in the Senate since January 2015.

Considering the history of the Eastern District, the shortfall in resources has been foreseen for years. For more than a decade the Judicial Conference of the United States has recommended that the district be authorized for up to six additional judgeships, doubling its current allocation. However, those recommendations have not been acted upon. Considering the history of the Eastern District, the shortfall in resources has been foreseen for years. For more than a decade the Judicial Conference of the United States has recommended that the district be authorized for up to six additional judgeships, doubling its current allocation. However, those recommendations have not been acted upon.

This is the case despite the fact that since the last new district judgeship was created in the Eastern District in 1978, the population of the district has grown from 2.5 million residents to more than 8 million. By contrast, the Northern District of California, which has a similar population, operates with 14 authorized district judges, Drozd said in his order.

“There are over 1,000 civil cases now on hold,” Clark said. “That’s a thousand more families going through the same thing.”

Below is a portion of a letter sent to elected officials by Joan Johnson:

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My name is Joan M. Johnson.  I am married to William “Lee” Johnson, and together we are the owners of a family trucking business that has been in existence since 1968.

In December 2018, my husband Lee was nearly killed in an explosion at a compressed natural gas fueling station.  He sustained various life-threatening injuries, including a severe traumatic brain injury.  The explosion was so powerful, it leveled the fueling station.  Although Lee ultimately survived, after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, his injuries have taken their toll.  He still suffers daily, as does our business.

In an effort to recover for our losses, we retained an attorney.  Our attorney filed a lawsuit in Federal Court, in the Eastern District of California, in early 2019.  At the time of the initial scheduling conference, trial was set for May 4, 2021.  Although this was a long way out in the future, it was acceptable, and we had a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Recently, our attorney has informed us of the judicial emergency in the Eastern District, as a result of Congress’ inability to appoint any new judges in our district.  I have attached to this letter a copy of the Order in Light of Ongoing Judicial Emergency.  In a nutshell, there is only one judge remaining in the Eastern District, and for the foreseeable future, civil cases, like ours, will be delayed indefinitely.  Our light at the end of the tunnel, it has been extinguished.  The hope for civil justice for my husband’s life-changing injuries, and our business losses, has been delayed indefinitely.

As I understand it, our case could proceed efficiently, if everyone was in agreement with having a federal magistrate oversee the trial.  We would stipulate to a magistrate, however the defendants in our case will not.  I imagine this is true in most civil cases in our district, because why would a defendant stipulate to a magistrate, and resolve the matter more quickly, when they can simply use this judicial emergency as a reason to delay, delay, delay.

We are not a family to ask much of our government.  In fact, we are quite the opposite.  We serve our Country.  My husband’s father, he was veteran.  My husband Lee, he is a veteran.  My son, he is a veteran too (with three Purple Hearts to show for it).  We believe in giving back, and supporting the Country we love, and the government that keeps it running.  We now respectfully ask that our government help us, and that priority be given to the appointment of judges in the Eastern District of California.

Anything you can do to help alleviate the judicial emergency in the Eastern District would be greatly appreciated.  I never understood the true meaning of “justice delayed, is justice denied,” until now.  Our livelihood, and my husband’s well-being depends on an operating civil justice system.  As the Court said in its Standing Order, this judicial emergency is not “conducive to the fair administration of justice.”  I am certain that there are many families dependent on the fair administration of justice in the Eastern District.

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If you or someone you know is injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form at chainlaw.com.

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MEDIA COVERAGE