Southern District gets caseload help from Wisconsin

The Birch Bayh Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis. (IL file photo)

A declared judicial emergency caused by a vacancy on the bench of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana has sparked a first-of-its kind partnership between the Southern District and its counterpart in the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

Starting March 1, the Indiana and Wisconsin district courts began a “borrowing and lending” partnership in which two judges from the Eastern District of Wisconsin — Chief Judge William Griesbach and Judge Lynn Adelman — entered into the regular rotation of case assignments in the Southern District’s Indianapolis Division. The unique partnership was created by the Judicial Conference of the United States’ Committee on Intercircuit Assignments in response to the judicial emergency created in the Southern District when Judge Sarah Evans Barker assumed senior status nearly three years ago.

adelman-lynn-mug.jpg Adelman
griesbach-william-mug.jpg Griesbach

Although it’s not uncommon for judges to work in another district, Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson for the Southern District of Indiana said the formal offer of help to her court from the Eastern District of Wisconsin is the first such partnership she’s seen. The partnership, which moved forward after a designation from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, is a pilot program meant to ease the burden on the Southern District’s four judges and two senior judges.

Considered to be a “borrowing court,” the Southern District of Indiana had an average weighted case filing of 717 per judgeship in the 12-month period ending June 30, 2016. In the same time frame, filings per judgeship in civil cases were above 800, while the circuit average was about 600 and the national average was just under 600, Magnus-Stinson said. The weighted filings average for the circuit was 450, while the national average was 500, she said.

magnus-stinson-jane-mug Magnus-Stinson

“We’re not in any position to refuse any help,” Magnus-Stinson said.

By comparison, Griesbach said his district had a weighted case filing average of 370 per judgeship for fiscal year 2015, while the Southern District of Indiana’s weighted average was 601 in the same timeframe. While those numbers shouldn’t be taken to mean the Eastern District of Wisconsin is not a busy court, Griesbach said his court was willing and able to “lend” some of its judges out to help ease the Southern District’s burden.

“It’s no mystery — everyone knows that the Southern District is under-judged,” Griesbach said.

Through the partnership, Griesbach and Adelman will handle a “discrete” number of cases on the Southern District’s docket. Adelman said he was told the partnership would start with him and Griesbach handling five Indiana cases, though Magnus-Stinson said the two courts would work through the partnership for a few months to see how it can be the most beneficial to her court. Southern District magistrate judges will continue to handle cases as they always have to provide continuity to lawyers, she said.

Considering most cases are resolved before they get to trial, Adelman said he expects much of his work in Indiana will be done electronically, though he and Griesbach are willing to travel to the Hoosier state to preside over a trial, if necessary.

Both the vacancy left by Barker’s move to senior status and a growing number of civil case filings are the driving force behind the district court’s judicial emergency, Magnus-Stinson said.

For example, multidistrict litigation involving Bloomington-based Cook Medical has resulted in 14,000 pending cases for the entire proceeding, the chief judge said. Additionally, the Southern District received 2,877 civil cases for the period ending Sept. 30, 2016, compared to about 1,600 civil cases in the Northern District of Indiana, she said. Further, the September-over-September change in civil case filings in the Southern District showed an increase of 367 cases.

“We’ve got a caseload and a half, is a good way to look at it,” Magnus-Stinson said.

Further, the way the state is divided also contributes to a heavier workload for the Southern District. Prisoner litigation, which makes up a large portion of civil filings, involve proceedings from 26 Indiana facilities. Of those, 21 fall in the Southern District, as well as a federal facility in Terre Haute. The remaining five facilities are handled by the Northern District of Indiana.

Even before Barker moved to senior status in 2014, the Southern District of Indiana had been identified as a court in need of another judgeship for the last 20 years, and in each of its studies since 2005, the Judicial Conference has recommended that Congress create an additional permanent judgeship in the district. President Barack Obama nominated Winfield Ong, the chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Indiana, to fill the vacancy, but he never received a confirmation vote in the Senate.

Magnus-Stinson said she continues to hope for a more permanent solution to her court’s caseload crisis, but is encouraged by the help of her colleagues in Wisconsin.

“Any relief is welcome, so we’re hoping if it pilots well, it will encourage other judges who don’t have as heavy of a caseload to raise their hands and say, ‘I’ll help as well,’” Magnus-Stinson said.

Further, the chief judge said she was encouraged by Republican Sen. Todd Young’s recent call-out for applicants to fill a seat on the Southern District bench. Magnus-Stinson said the court has been in contact with both Young and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s office about the vacancy and hopes that Young’s call-out will yield positive results for the court. Applications for the judgeship are due to Young’s office by March 13.•

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