Between October 2006 and July of this year, judges in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on average sentenced 147 defendants in criminal cases. According to a new study, the city's federal court had the smallest average criminal caseload of any federal court nationwide during that time.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, released the results yesterday of a new analysis of sentencing data from the federal courts. TRAC, which is based at Syracuse University, measured criminal caseloads by the number of defendants sentenced per judge; TRAC Co-Director Susan Long said they thought sentencings would be a useful measuring tool because most criminal cases in the federal courts end in a guilty plea or conviction.
But U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the D.C.-based court said he didn't think the study was a helpful way to gauge criminal caseloads and judicial workloads, since it put all criminal cases on an even playing field, regardless of their complexity or how long they took to resolve.
"In other courts, most of those cases are one-hour guilty pleas. If that's the case, compared to Roger Clemens or large cases we have here that go on for weeks, I don't think it's helpful for understanding the process," he said, referring to the years-long proceedings against Clemens, the former professional baseball player who was ultimately acquitted of charges of lying to Congress.
Courthouses in states along the U.S.-Mexico border had the largest average caseloads, according to the TRAC study. In the Las Cruces, N.M., courthouse, the one active judge studied there handled 7,020 sentencings alone, the most of any other court's average caseload. According to TRAC, sentencings have been higher in the Southwest because of the federal government's increased efforts to prosecute immigration-related matters.
Long said that while different cases might have different lengths, the length of the study period – more than five years – was enough to take into account the varying lengths of cases and provide an accurate sense of the criminal caseload in any given court. She said that a previous study looking at the total number of defendants yielded similar results as far as showing varying caseloads between different courts.
Lamberth noted that the study didn't include the large number of cases the D.C. court has handled related to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Those cases, which are mostly habeas petitions filed by detainees, aren't considered criminal cases, he said, but they had "swamped" the court.
Besides comparing caseloads at different courts, the TRAC study explored the differences in caseloads among judges serving in the same court. Although caseloads varied widely among judges in some courts, including the Los Angeles courthouse of the Central District of California and the Beaumont, Texas courthouse of the Eastern District of Texas, caseloads in the Washington federal courthouse were fairly consistent.
Of the nine local federal judges who were active throughout the study period – not including judges who joined the court or who retired or took senior status during that time – the number of defendants ranged from a low of 137 to a high of 169, according to TRAC's data. Lamberth and U.S. District Judges Rosemary Collyer, Richard Leon, John Bates, Ellen Segal Huvelle, Reggie Walton, Richard Roberts, Emmet Sullivan and Colleen Kollar-Kotelly were included in the 430 total active judges studied as part of TRAC's analysis.