They are kept in federal courthouses across the United States, although, understandably, they are not prominently displayed: lists of cases that have dragged on for months or even years, often because a judge has failed to make a key ruling.
But there is one unchallenged king of delayed decisions: Judge George B. Daniels of Federal District Court in Manhattan, who, the latest statistics show, had 289 motions in civil cases pending for more than six months, by far the highest total of any federal judge in the nation.
For some plaintiffs, the waits have seemed like forever.
There was the woman in Queens who had to fend off creditors while she waited more than three years for the judge to decide that she was entitled to her late ex-husband’s pension benefits. And there was the prisoner with H.I.V. who filed a petition challenging his state court conviction. By the time Judge Daniels got around to issuing an order – three years later – the prisoner had died.
Of course, court delays are an age-old problem. The agency that tabulates delayed civil cases, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, in Washington, circulates the lists to federal judges twice a year, offering a not-so-subtle reminder of cases that might be falling through the cracks. But of about 1,500 active and senior Federal District Court judges and magistrates in the United States, none come close to Judge Daniels’s record of motions that have been awaiting action for more than six months, according to the fall 2003 list, the most recent available.
The judge’s total is more than 100 ahead of the second-ranked judge, who is from South Carolina and has 171. On the Manhattan federal bench, Judge Daniels has more than three times the number of these motions than the next judge, who has 91.
Federal judges, to be sure, often need time to decide difficult legal questions. But some of Judge Daniels’s critics suggest that his approach is the judicial equivalent of a lawyer neglecting a client’s case. Delays can be frustrating and disillusioning; they make judges seem imperious to litigants, who often put their lives on hold as they await a decision. Regina Adams, the Queens woman in the pension case, said, “It was really hard, with all the bill collectors down my neck.”
Court records and interviews show that in at least eight cases, including Mrs. Adams’s, people were so frustrated by Judge Daniels’s slow pace that they went over his head. They filed petitions with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit asking that it order Judge Daniels to rule or perhaps transfer their cases to another judge.
Typically, shortly after the petitions were filed in the higher court, Judge Daniels did rule.
Judge Daniels, who joined the bench in April 2000, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. His list of pending motions, sometimes several in a case, cites reasons for some delays, like “complexity of case,” “heavy criminal and civil caseload” and “voluminous brief/transcripts to be read.” But in other cases, including several that led to petitions to the Court of Appeals, the list says, “no comment on status.”
Judge Michael B. Mukasey, chief judge of the Federal District Court, who has received repeated complaints about the delays, said that he thought Judge Daniels had been tackling his backlog, and that the year-old statistics did not offer the clearest picture.
“Judge Daniels and I have spoken about this,” he said, “and I have every reason to believe that to the extent that it’s a problem, which is less than the raw numbers appear to indicate, it’s being addressed by him and his staff.”
“As an institutional matter,” Judge Mukasey added, “obviously inordinate delay is always a concern.”
Federal courts have historically been regarded as far more efficient than state systems, but there is apparently little that can be done when a federal judge, who enjoys lifetime tenure, moves too slowly on a civil motion. In criminal cases, in which deadlines are more enforceable, delays do not appear to have been a problem in Judge Daniels’s cases.
But a review of the civil cases in which the appeals court was asked to intervene with Judge Daniels shows what can happen when the wheels of justice effectively grind to a halt.
For Regina Adams, the issue seemed clear. In 1997, after her former husband, Stanley, a bus driver, died, she began receiving a survivor’s pension benefit of $1,178 a month.
But the next year, the checks stopped. Mrs. Adams, then in her late 60’s, was confused. Although she and Mr. Adams had been divorced, he had made her the beneficiary of his pension plan.