GAINESVILLE — The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida will be operating with half the judicial staff they require after Judge Robert Hinkle was reassigned to senior status. The court now has two vacancies.
There have been four judge positions at the court and Judge John Richard Smoak left his position in 2015. The nominated replacement for Smoak, Magistrate Judge Philip R. Lammens, has not yet had his hearing with the Senate judiciary committee. He has been waiting since April.
Ben Wilcox of Integrity Florida said the delay was initially due to the presidential elections but said there might be some action in the process shortly.
“We don’t know if the Senate is going to allow the new president to make new nominations. If that is the case, that could slow down the whole process even more,” Wilcox told the Florida Record.
Hinkle made the transition Nov. 7. A replacement has not yet been found. There are now only two judges: Chief District Judge M. Casey Rodgers and U.S. District Judge Mark Walker. Senior judge positions do not count as one of the four judge positions. Wilcox said after moving to senior status, the judges took on a reduced caseload.
The court is responsible for hearing federal civil and criminal cases from Pensacola to Gainesville. Reports indicate that the court has about 2,500 cases filed each year. The Northern District ranks 14th in the country for the total number of civil cases filed per judge. The district was also reportedly the sixth in the U.S. for both the number of trials completed per judge and the shortest average time between civil fling and trial.
Integrity Florida has published a report on the impact of judicial vacancies on the federal courts.At the time of the report, which was released in August 2016, there were five vacancies across the state of Florida. That was higher than the national average.
“Nominations have been made by the president to fill all of the vacant judgeships, but none have been confirmed by the Senate,” the report stated. “Unfilled vacancies, particularly judgeships open for a long period of time, threaten the timely administration of justice in both criminal and civil cases.”
Wilcox said the loss of two judges may become a bigger problem.
“It is probable that with the new vacancy in the Northern District, that might be declared a judicial emergency because there is now even more burden on the remaining two judges," he said.
However, the declaration would not mean action would be taken to fill the vacancies, he said.
“It doesn’t automatically speed up the confirmation process, Wilcox said.
In a study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, judicial vacancies were shown to cause case delays, result in less time spent on individual cases, administrative burdens and a risk of judicial burn-out.
The state’s court system has been divided into three districts including the Northern District, Middle District and Southern District. The Northern District has further been divided into four divisions that serve the surrounding regions. These include Gainesville, Panama City, Pensacola and Tallahassee.