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Federal judge shortage 'will seriously hinder the administration of justice' in Kern

Take a stroll through the multi-story federal courthouse in Fresno, suggests Bakersfield attorney Matthew Clark.

What you don't see might surprise you.

“Walk through the halls,” he says. “There’s no one there.”

Clark is exaggerating, but just barely.

Federal Judge Dale A. Drozd of the U.S. Eastern District Court of California, the federal judicial district that includes Bakersfield and the southern San Joaquin Valley, has instituted a "judicial emergency" order that he acknowledges “will seriously hinder the administration of justice” in the district.

“These are uncharted waters for this court,” Drozd writes in his order, signed Feb. 3. “The emergency procedures … are being implemented reluctantly.”

The emergency is already affecting hundreds of local cases and local families, including cases The Californian has covered in years past.

The district, which serves 8 million Californians is supposed to have six full-time judges — three in Fresno and three in Sacramento.

But in the past two months, three judges in Fresno have assumed reduced work status or inactive status.

“We have one judge” in Fresno, Clark says.

“We are the single most impacted district in the country.”

What does that mean for individuals and families with cases pending?

For William “Lee” Johnson and his family, it’s a matter of financial survival. Johnson, now 60, was nearly killed in a December 2018 explosion at a compressed natural gas fueling station in Buttonwillow.

The accident has made him unemployable, and his wife, Joan, has had to tap her retirement fund to keep the family stable financially.

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.

McCarthy's office did not immediately respond to inquiries for comment.

“Until this is handled, the danger is out there for everybody,” Lee Johnson says.

Others affected include the family of Nancy Joyce Garrett, who was killed in September 2014 when Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Nicholas Clerico ran a red light and slammed into Garrett’s car. Nearly six years later, that civil case is ongoing.

Lee Johnson’s son, Jerrad Johnson, lays the blame squarely on politicians. Federal judges are nominated by presidents and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. But the job has not been getting done, and he’s frustrated, as is every family member affected.

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.

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

Says Jerrad Johnson, “And more daily.”

According to Drozd, the shortage of full-time district judges "will seriously hinder the administration of justice throughout this district, but the impact will be particularly acute in Fresno," where Drozd will now be presiding over some 1,050 civil actions and 625 criminal cases.

"Until two candidates are nominated and confirmed to fill this court's two vacant authorized district judgeships, this situation can only be expected to get progressively worse," the judge says in his order.

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 says.

The situation is so extraordinary Drozd acknowledges the steps he is reluctantly taking may not only violate his own standing order involving civil actions, but may also contradict Local Rules of the Eastern District of California.

"The court has been placed in an untenable position in which it simply has no choice," Drozd writes. And he acknowledges that "there will likely be unforeseen consequences due to the implementation of these emergency procedures."

For the Johnson and Garrett families, those consequences are already here.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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