The number of vacancies on the federal trial court in the Western District of Pennsylvania grew to five Friday, when U.S. District Court Judge David Cercone entered senior status. The court is authorized to have a total of 10 judges.
The number of unfilled seats is expected to climb even higher Jan. 1 when, according to a court official, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Schwab is expected to switch to senior status. Senior status is a form of semi-retirement where judges hear fewer cases.
Federal district court handles trials, and more than 3,000 criminal and civil cases are filed in the western district each year.
It's been reported that Republicans in Washington are hurrying to fill vacancies with conservative judges, but district courts are less of a priority than the higher courts, according to Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
“District judges don’t make the law. They don’t set precedents. They can be reviewed on most issues by the courts of appeals,” Hellman said. “So they’re not worth fighting for in the way that court of appeals positions are.”
While the shortage of judges in the western district has caused alarm among some, the Judicial Conference of the United States indicates that, given existing caseloads, the western district is not in a judicial emergency.
Hellman said he doesn't expect the Western District of Pennsylvania to get any new appointees until well into 2018.
“The Senate judiciary committee is busy with a lot of things, and the Democrats have been holding up hearings,” Hellman said. “And so that process is delayed. And of course, at this point, we have no nominees.”
The court in the western district is one of three federal trial courts in Pennsylvania. The other two serve the central and eastern sections of the state and have far lower vacancy rates. In the eastern district, 18 percent of seats are unfilled. There are no vacancies in the middle district.