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Buffalo's federal court backlog is among worst in nation

Justice can be slow.

But for Adam Pritchard and Erie County, slow means waiting years. Thirteen years, to be exact.

Pritchard, 37 at the time, filed a lawsuit in 2004 challenging the county's use of strip searches at its jails. His case, like hundreds of other civil suits in Buffalo federal court, remains unresolved years later.

While Pritchard's case is the extreme, a review of the local court's workload found one of the worst civil and criminal case backlogs in the nation.

Civil cases like the one Pritchard filed now take five years to reach trial in Buffalo. Only 11 of the other 93 federal court systems across the country have a greater percentage of civil cases that are at least 3 years old.

The delays are the result of a large workload – judges here handle more cases than all but six other courts across the nation – and a court system without the resources to address that workload, never mind eat away at a backlog that has exceeded 3,600 cases each of the past five years.

"There's an old legal adage, 'Justice delayed is justice denied,' " said Melinda G. Disare, president of the Erie County Bar Association.

Few, if any, blame the court 's federal judges for the backlog. In fact, Buffalo is home to only one active district court judge.

But lawyers say the long delays in civil cases shortchange individuals and businesses who feel wronged by another party and who look to the courts for justice.

"The No. 1 complaint I hear from clients is that it takes too long," said Timothy J. Graber, a lawyer and chairman of the Bar Association's Federal Practice Committee. "It's incredible how busy we are."

Buffalo is one of the busiest federal courts in the country, ranking seventh among 94 court systems in terms of pending cases per judge.

The lion's share of those cases are civil lawsuits, and at least half of those are claims by Social Security recipients and prison inmates. Together, they accounted for 1,140 of the 1,958 civil suits filed here last year.

Even more telling, perhaps, is the huge increase in Social Security cases. In just six years, the number of new suits increased more than 500 percent, from a low of 98 in 2010 to a high of 580 last year.

It's no secret that Social Security lawsuits, especially those dealing with disability benefits, are on the rise across the country, as well as here. The region is also home to at least 19 correctional facilities, one of the primary reasons so many jailhouse lawsuits are filed in Buffalo and Rochester.

"It's sheer numbers," said Chief U.S. District Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr., referring to the volume of new cases filed. "We can't even get to the backlog."

To understand what Geraci is saying, all you have to do is compare the number of new local cases filed this past year, 2,876, with the number of cases terminated, 2,895.

In short, the court is treading water, never able to address the constant backlog.

Sharing judges with Vermont

When you talk to lawyers who litigate civil cases here, they will tell you the delays are so common that there's a "new norm" in Buffalo federal court.

"I prepare all my clients for it," said Anthony Marecki, a Buffalo lawyer who handles a wide range of civil cases. "I tell them your case will eventually be adjudicated. But obviously, we would all like the courts to move quicker."

Lawyers say the delays can also make cases more difficult to prove or defend.

"Delays can cause evidence to become difficult or impossible to acquire," said Erie County Attorney Michael Siragusa. "Witnesses lose memory of the events at issue. County employees retire and move to other states. Witnesses relocate or pass away, and documents are more difficult to locate."

Siragusa and Marecki are quick to defend the judges handling their cases, calling their workload one of the biggest in the nation. Adding another judge, maybe two, is the only viable solution, Siragusa said, referring to a judicial conference in 1992 that recommended a third district court judge in Buffalo.

In his eyes, Buffalo is down not one judge, but two.

Geraci, who is based in Rochester but often travels to Buffalo to hear cases, has seen his workload double in recent years and, like Siragusa, isn't shy about suggesting the U.S. Senate should move on filling the vacancy that exists here. Buffalo attorney Kathleen Sweet was recommended by then-President Barack Obama more than two years ago, but her nomination remains stalled in the Senate.

"That's a real disservice to the citizens of the Western District," Geraci said. "We desperately need that seat filled, and the sooner the better."

Calling the backlog an obstacle to the "advancement of justice," the Erie County Bar Association recently sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, urging quick action on Sweet's nomination. Schumer is the one who first recommended Sweet to Obama.

The letter said the region's unusually large civil caseload is supplemented by criminal filings that often outpace bigger cities such as Boston and Cleveland. The letter ended by suggesting the two-year-long vacancy on the bench is "decisively at odds with the good of the people."

But the Senate shows no signs of moving on Sweet's nomination and, with a Republican now in the White House, the local GOP is looking for a new candidate. Among the names bandied about are John L. Sinatra Jr., a business and commercial litigator with Hodgson Russ, and Amy Habib-Rittling, a business and employment attorney at Lippes, Mathias, Wexler and Friedman.

Geraci also is looking for short-term solutions to the backlog and recently adopted a three-year judge-sharing agreement with the federal court system in Vermont, a district with a much smaller caseload.

Vermont's judges will be assigned new civil cases from Buffalo on a rotating basis and will oversee those cases from start to finish. Even with the addition of those judges, the local courts also will continue to depend on two senior judges, U.S. District Judges Richard J. Arcara and William M. Skretny, who went to senior status – a kind of semi-retirement – but continue to oversee full caseloads.

The chief judge is also adopting a new initiative called "Settlement Week," an attempt to target 100 of the oldest civil cases on the court docket and provide the parties with a financial incentive – free mediation – to reach a resolution.

"It's another tool we're using to clean up some of the older cases," Geraci said.

Pushing plea deals

In many respects, civil cases take a back seat to criminal matters, in large part because of the urgency the law places on resolving criminal cases quickly. And yet, data from the local court system indicates criminal cases here are also taking longer to resolve.

During the year that ended in June, according to the most recent data available, felony criminal cases took, on average, 18.1 months to reach a disposition. Five years ago, it took 11 months.

"It rings true: Justice delayed is justice denied," said Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. "We have victims, especially in financial crimes, who may not live long enough to see justice. And that's not right."

The increase is not a reflection of more criminal cases being filed. In fact, the number of new felony complaints and indictments filed here dropped to 95 this year, down from 173 five years ago.

Prosecutors say the lower numbers are due primarily to a reduction in immigration cases. For years, Buffalo's status as a cross-border community has been cited as  one of the major reasons the caseload here is so high.

"We're not getting the hand-written Nigerian passport anymore," Kennedy said last week.

Despite the decrease in new filings, Kennedy's office is still among the busiest in the country, ranking 32nd out of 94 offices in terms of new felony cases per judge.

Kennedy said his office focuses on "the worst of the worst" and the result is reflected in the percentage of defendants – 47.6 percent this year compared with 32.4 percent a decade ago – who get at least five years in prison.

He also predicts the downward trend in filings is about to end.

Defense lawyers think the lower numbers also reflect a change in priorities. They say the feds no longer conduct drug and gang "round-ups" that result in mass arrests, some of them involving low-level, first-time offenders.

They also point to the U.S. attorney's decision to prosecute less-serious child pornography cases, those involving possession, not distribution or production, in state court rather than federal court.

Despite the changes, Buffalo defense attorney Timothy W. Hoover, an officer with the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, thinks more steps can be taken to alleviate the backlog.

Chief among them are diversion programs that he admits are not popular with prosecutors. Under those type of programs, defendants are given an opportunity to enter a rehabilitation program as an alternative to pleading guilty.

"It serves the purpose of rehabilitation but without the stigma of a felony conviction," Hoover said last week.

Unlike some courts across the country, district court judges in Buffalo rely heavily on magistrate judges to help with the workload.

In criminal cases, magistrates oversee the defendant's initial appearances, handle motions and, in the end, make a formal recommendation on those motions to the district court judge. The district court judge then conducts a second review of the case before approving or rejecting the recommendations.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers understand the need for those recommendations, given the district court judges' caseload, but nevertheless view them as a built-in appeal process that can often be redundant and time consuming.

"Sometimes the things that are done to cope with the backlog slow us down," Hoover said.

Kennedy has his own ideas on how to improve the system and, in August, took steps to address the growing delays in criminal cases. The biggest change is a directive that all prosecutors make an effort to offer plea deals earlier in the process and, perhaps even more important, make it clear that all future plea offers will then be less favorable to the defendant.

The goal, Kennedy said, is to motivate defendants to take a plea deal earlier. At last count, about 97 percent of all federal criminal cases in Western New York end in plea agreements, not trials.

"We want to make sure we're not contributing to this issue," Kennedy said of the backlog.

Given the size of the overall caseload, it's unclear if the new changes in criminal cases will have any effect on the civil suits that really suffer because of the backlog.

For Geraci, the chief judge who sees the delays firsthand, the changes are welcome, but he knows the ultimate remedy is a new judge.

And when asked if that old adage, "Justice delayed is justice denied" is indeed true here in Buffalo, he didn't miss a beat.

"Absolutely, " he said.

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