The Judicial Policy Implications of Reckless Driving on Federal Land

By Steve Klepper (Twitter: @MDAppeal)

So you just received a citation for reckless driving on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. You may think, perhaps, that you’re headed to Prince George’s County traffic court. Nope. The traffic ticket will tell you “U.S. District Court Violation Notice.” You’re headed to see a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Greenbelt.

That’s because the B-W Parkway is a federal enclave – federal land situated within Maryland’s borders. Each year, the U.S. Attorney’s office handles “thousands of misdemeanor cases that occur on areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction such as the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the National Institutes of Health, and military bases.”

Yesterday, in U.S. v. Hollingsworth, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a conviction and six-month sentence – imposed by a U.S. Magistrate Judge following a bench trial – for misdemeanor assault occurring on a Navy base in Louisiana.[*] The defendant objected that he was entitled to a trial before a federal district judge (a life-tenured presidential appointee) rather than before a federal magistrate judge (appointed by the district judges for an eight-year term).

Surprisingly, the defendant’s argument persuaded a dissenting judge. One member of the majority even penned a concurrence that “my heart travels in [the dissent’s] direction.” Although I happen to agree with the majority [Update: though maybe not with its rationale after reading Steve Vladek’s post], the surprise to me is that two members of any federal appellate panel would endorse or sympathize with such a position.

As of today, the U.S. Judicial Conference has identified 23 Article III vacancies as “judicial emergencies.” That includes five district judgeships within the Fifth Circuit. The Judicial Conference is requesting an additional eight permanent district judgeships for Texas; that proposal is going nowhere. I spent eight years of my career heavily litigating a case in the El Paso Division of the Western District of Texas, which shares a border with Mexico and includes the massive Fort Bliss. Every civil hearing required us to wait through multiple sentencing hearings for cross-border felonies. Imagine if misdemeanants were also entitled to trial or sentencing before an Article III judge.

Despite one longstanding [*] vacancy (that finally has a nominee), the District of Maryland fortunately is devoid of emergency vacancies. Our district judges typically take senior status as soon as they’re eligible, so that they can make room for more Article III judges within the state and help with judicial emergencies outside Maryland. But the situation would change in a heartbeat if traffic and petty misdemeanors were transferred from our magistrate judges to our district judges.

The Hollingsworth dissent, if the Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court were to adopt such a view, would push an already strained federal judiciary past its breaking point. I hope the idea gains no further traction anywhere in the country.


[*] Hat-tip to Howard Bashman of How Appealing. [Update: Thanks to Twitter follower @fedcourts for observing that Judge Chasanow’s seat has been vacant for only six months. My confusion stemmed from the fact that Judge Chasanow had, more than a year in advance, notified the president in 2013 of her intention to take senior status. The Judicial Conference therefore had long listed her seat as a “Future Vacancy.”]

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