Things became so bad recently that Connecticut's top federal trial judge felt compelled to send an SOS.
Chief U.S. District Judge Alvin W. Thompson of the District of Connecticut asked colleagues from other states to lend a hand with civil cases when a shortage of judges threatened the ability of his court to deliver justice.
The situation is not as dire in the Northern District of Illinois.
But Chief U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman said four vacancies on the Chicago-based federal trial bench forced the judges currently serving on the court to take on more work.
"Each of the judges has to carry that much more of the full caseload that we have," Holderman said.
One of the court's 22 authorized judgeships opened up when Wayne R. Andersen retired from the bench, another when William J. Hibbler died and two more when Joan B. Gottschall and Joan H. Lefkow took senior status.
In May, President Barack Obama nominated attorney Thomas M. Durkin of Mayer, Brown LLP to succeed Andersen. But the full U.S. Senate has not yet voted on Durkin's nomination.
And Holderman said it was unlikely anyone would be tapped soon to fill the remaining openings despite the efforts of U.S. Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., to select nominees.
"I know the senators are working diligently to review candidates, but I don't expect any nominations until after the first of the year," he said.
Observers do not expect other vacancies on the federal district and territorial courts across the country to be filled any time soon either.
Figures from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts show that 62 of the 677 authorized judgeships on the federal trial courts were vacant as of today.
But the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported last month that the length of time between the nomination and confirmation of "uncontroversial" nominees to the federal bench has been increasing over the past 21 years.
The average waiting time for uncontroversial nominees to the trial courts rose from 69.9 days during the administration of President Ronald Reagan to 204.8 days during the Obama administration.
CRS, the public policy research arm of Congress, said a number of factors exist behind the increase in waiting times.
Those factors include "ideological differences between the president and senators" and delays in conducting hearings before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee caused by scheduling practices or by holds placed on nominations, CRS said.
Attorney Steven M. Puiszis of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP said another factor that lengthens the confirmation process is the enormous amount of information available on the Internet nowadays.
Senators who do not serve on the Judiciary Committee search out that information "so they can explain to their constituents why they voted in favor of or against a nominee should it become a campaign issue," Puiszis said.
He said a growing polarization between the two major political parties also plays a part in delays in confirming judicial nominees.
These delays harm the justice system, said Puiszis, the editor of "Without Fear or Favor in 2011," a report on judicial independence issued by DRI—The Voice of the Defense Bar.
He said fewer judges means that those remaining on the trial courts must handle more cases.
And because criminal cases have priority, it takes longer for litigants in civil matters to get rulings on "potentially dispositive motions" Puiszis said.
He said a more serious problem is the effect partisan squabbling has on the public's view of the courts.
Those battles contribute to the perception that judges are "politicians in black robes," Puiszis said.
Adam Skaggs, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said both the White House and the Senate can help remedy the situation.
"I think the administration needs to promptly nominate qualified individuals to every vacancy, but, more importantly, the Senate rules that are being used to delay votes need to be seriously looked at," he said.
Skaggs said it was important to make these moves.
"The work of the federal courts is vital to the health of the democracy and when staffing the bench becomes a political football, it does real damage to the country," he said.