Measuring Bench Presence: Federal District Judges in the Courtroom, 2008-2012
42 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2013 Last revised: 23 Mar 2014
Date Written: April 8, 2013
In a companion piece, the authors argued for a more comprehensive model of federal district court productivity which included, among other things, a measure of each court’s capacity and commitment to provide procedural fairness to litigants. The authors further proposed a new procedural fairness metric called bench presence, a measure of the time that district judges spend adjudicating issues in an open forum.
This article examines real-world bench presence data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. On the surface, the numbers are disappointing for those who view courtroom time as integral to procedural fairness protections. Specifically, the data reveal a decline in total courtroom hours in more than two-thirds of the federal district courts between FY2008 and FY2012, and an overall national decline in total courtroom hours of more than 8 percent during that same period.
But there is encouraging news in the data as well. Strong levels of bench presence are not restricted to courts of a particular size, circuit, or docket composition, suggesting that there are no persistent structural barriers to any district court increasing the amount of time that its judges spend in the courtroom. In addition, there is only a weak correlation between a district court’s average courtroom hours per judge and its average time to case disposition, indicating that district courts need not choose between efficiency and procedural fairness in addressing their caseloads. Based on these findings, the authors urge judges to increase courtroom hours in their own districts, and invite scholars and court administrators to further investigate the potential of the bench presence metric.
Keywords: federal district courts, judges, metrics, courtroom, open court, empirical measurement, procedural fairness, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, time to disposition, senior judges, vacancies
JEL Classification: K40, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation