Central Valley's federal justice system among slowest in the nation

The exterior of Bakersfield's federal courthouse which was built with $28.5 million of federal stimulus money.

It might just be the best kept secret from Central Valley taxpayers. Federal justice moves slower here than it does just about anywhere else in the United States.

"There's nobody who disagrees that it should be much faster," said Federal Magistrate Judge Jennifer Thurston.

The problem area is the Eastern District of the 9th Circuit Court that serves much of the eastern half of the state, from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.

"The problem is that people are not made aware of it until they have to be a part of the system," said attorney Neil Gehlawat. "When they are a part of the system, they get frustrated."

Wesley Morris never anticipated being a part of the system.

"It feels natural now," he said. "10-15 years ago I definitely wouldn't have seen this happening."

A gun store owner in Taft, Morris is among a group of plaintiffs affiliated with the Calguns Foundation suing California. They're bringing a first amendment challenge to an old state law that regulates handgun advertising.

A history teacher, Morris says he's fascinated by the legal system and has enjoyed learning more about it. But it's no short lesson.

"The wheels of justice are not fast," he said.

Morris' group filed their case in 2014. It's not scheduled for trial until 2017.

A three year wait for a civil case is not uncommon in the Valley. It's the average, according to federal data obtained by Eyewitness News via public record request.

Nationwide, the average civil case takes 26.8 months to finish. In the Eastern District of our circuit court, the average is 37.8 months.

The disparity is greater when considering criminal cases, where defendants have a Constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Nationwide, the average criminal trial takes 7.6 months. In the Valley, it takes an average of 20.6.

And it's not simply that our judges are moving slow. Federal data shows that judges in the Eastern District are extremely efficient, posting a "case termination rate" much higher than their peers in other districts.

The waits are simply the product of a case backlog years in the making. The average judge in the Central Valley has 1,200 pending cases at any given time. The federal judicial system has simply not kept up with the rapidly growing population in the Central Valley.

"When you consider Puerto Rico and Guam and the entire federal system, we are the busiest district. Our judges have more cases than any other judge anywhere," Thurston said.

Local litigants like Morris will wait a long time for their day in trial, but they'll also have to drive more than a hundred miles to see a judge.

Bakersfield's federal courthouse, built with $28.5 million of federal stimulus money, doesn't have a judge. As a magistrate, Thurston stays quite busy with lots of different court business, from issuing search warrants and presiding over detention hearings to hearing social security appeals. But she doesn't carry the authority to handle criminal trials.

So cases like Damacio Diaz, an allegedly crooked cop whose life was recently profiled in Disney's "McFarland, USA," can only be settled more than 100 miles away from where they originated.

She can hear civil lawsuits, but only if all parties agree to waive their right to a district judge.

So for many Kern County residents, a date in federal court involves a trip to Fresno.

And until recently, as many as a third of civil cases in Fresno were passed to Sacramento. Eyewitness News was contacted Tuesday afternoon by a court clerk who told us that the policy of sending Bakersfield cases to Sacramento was ended in March.

The travel, whether to Fresno or Sacramento, presents a considerable burden to all involved in the system, Gehlawat said.

"That creates more expense," he said. "It's difficult for the clients, for them to get there, to leave their homes, their jobs that are important to them and their lives and have to travel two hours or four, five hours away to get their day in court."

It's a problem that's not lost on Kern County's representatives in Congress.

"Well, we need to bring in more judges," said Congressman David Valadao.

"There is a real need and a fairness issue," said Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House.

Senator Dianne Feinstein sent Eyewitness News a statement about the issue, which said in part, "The caseload in California's Eastern District is crippling, nearly twice the national average."

But here's the kicker.

Feinstein blames House Republicans for killing the bill she says would fix the problem. McCarthy blames Senate Democrats for killing his version of the same bill.

So as Congress debates, people like Morris will continue to wait.

"It's definitely frustrating," he said. "You just got to work with it and keep moving."

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