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District court working to improve case backlog

The annual federal court caseload statistics released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOC) last week revealed  the Western District of New York is high on the list of total filings (10th in the country), resolves its cases quickly (seventh), and hears some of the most weighted or complex cases in the country (seventh).

“We definitely look at them,” said Michael Roemer, chief clerk for the Western District of New York, with locations in Buffalo and Rochester. “The statistics show us where we rate as compared to other district courts.”
One area the court didn’t excel in is the percentage of civil cases over three years old. In that ranking, the court was 87 out of 94 district courts in the time period ending Sept. 30, 2010.

“The judges are concerned about that,” Roemer said. “Since coming here, it’s been one of my goals to improve in that area. We get a lot of cases in and a lot of cases out but we do have a lot that hang around for awhile.”

Civil cases that take a long time to resolve include prisoner pro se habeas corpus and civil rights cases.

“Anytime you have pro se litigants it complicates things,” Roemer said. “Since they’re not trained lawyers, they don’t know the law and our circuit requires that we be flexible with the pro se cases and allow them multiple opportunities to get things right.”

Prisoner civil rights cases constitute the biggest backlog classification the court has. Environmental, labor and personal injury cases can also take a long time in court to resolve. To help improve the backlog, the court has implemented an Alternative Dispute Resolution program in Buffalo to speed things up.

“It’s our biggest initiative to help solve the backlog,” Roemer said.

Since beginning in October 2009, over 600 cases have been referred to the ADR program with a 93 percent settlement rate. The cases are heard by private sector attorneys and some non-attorney mediators who receive training through resources provided by the AOC in Washington, D.C.

Roemer said the court has the AOC resources to begin ADR in Rochester and hopes to get it going soon.

Getting pro se litigants’ representation is another means of moving backlogged cases along and Roemer said the court is in the process of revitalizing its pro bono program to get more attorneys involved. Pro bono attorneys don’t need to take on an entire case to help. Roemer said it helps a pro per just to have an attorney to advise or talk to even if it doesn’t involve representation throughout an entire trial.

Roemer said he wants big law firms to get involved in the pro bono work, which could help their young attorneys get experience and benefit the court, too.

The court has also targeted resources to areas Roemer wants to improve in such as habeas corpus and social security cases. The social security case backlog is less than half of what it was four years ago and the habeas corpus backlog is down 21 percent, despite an 18 percent increase in filings.

Of course, getting another judge would help the civil case backlog.

President Barack Obama has nominated Monroe County District Attorney Michael Green to be the next federal Western New York District court judge, but Roemer said he has no idea of where the nomination stands or when Green will arrive.

In 1994, the Judicial Conference of the United States recommended the court receive an additional judge and a temporary judge, but Congress has yet to fund the positions. Nor does the federal budget for judges look promising in the near future.

In the meantime, Roemer and the district court judges do what they can to boost AOC rankings and more importantly; ensure justice is served.

“We are always looking for ways to streamline the case resolution process so people can get their day in court, their disputes can get resolved and they can move on,” he said. “We try not to delay justice but to get it done as quickly and fairly as we can.

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