TRAC contacted clerks in a sample of districts. The clerks who agreed to be interviewed "uniformly indicated that while judges were randomly assigned by the court's computerized software system, adjustments were allowed in the 'odds of selection' when directed by the chief judge in a district (or sometimes by an individual judge)," the report stated.
TRAC's comparison of caseloads between regions confirmed that courthouses on the Southwest border had by far the highest number of sentences. Atop the list was the courthouse in Las Cruces, N.M., where Judge Robert C. Brack is the only district judge, with 7,020 defendants sentenced. The next four were other Texas courthouses in McAllen, Midland, El Paso and Del Rio. Each of the judges in those courthouses averaged more than 4,600 sentences. The 11 courthouses with the highest caseloads were all on the border, "because of the government's sharply increased emphasis on the criminal enforcement of immigration matters," the report stated.
On the opposite end, the courthouse in the nation's capital had the lowest average number of criminal defendants sentenced per judge — 147 over the nearly six years in the study.
"We have many more complex cases than most of the districts listed in the report," said Washington's chief judge, Royce Lamberth. He noted that the court handles public corruption cases, white-collar cases and any prosecution for obstruction of Congress, which can be time-consuming. Just this year, the court tried former baseball pitcher Roger Clemens on charges of perjury, making false statements and obstructing Congress for denying he had used performance-enhancing drugs. A jury acquitted Clemens of all charges after a trial that lasted more than nine weeks.
"So comparing a case in which there's a one-hour, at most, guilty plea in an immigration violation, and probably one hour spent on sentencing, can't really compare to the kinds of cases we're doing," Lamberth said
Sellers, spokesman for the office that provides administrative support to federal courts, said that differences in caseloads have "been a reality of judging — not just in federal courts — for more than two centuries."
"I would liken this to a study that concludes that cars traveling on the same road, or different roads, travel at different speeds," Sellers said.
That doesn't mean things can't be improved, he added. "There are courts that have tremendous needs for new judgeships, particularly on the Southwest border. There are longstanding judicial vacancies." But the judiciary doesn't control the number of judges.
The report acknowledged that Congress, which funds the courts, and the executive branch, which brings prosecutions, both have a responsibility for helping to manage criminal caseloads.
Follow Fred Frommer on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ffrommer