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The Court Rules

U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico has one of the fastest growing caseloads in the country; leads the First Circuit in workload and efficiency


September 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

In an exclusive CARIBBEAN BUSINESS interview, U.S. District Chief Judge Hector Laffitte discusses the role of the federal court on the island

"This is no place to retire," says 65-year-old U.S. District Chief Judge Hector Laffitte of the court which he has sat upon for nearly 20 years and has presided over for the past three.

His gentle smile and composure belie the physical exhaustion of someone who works hard every day. He has no choice. He and his six colleagues are, to put it mildly, swamped.

The federal court in Puerto Rico is by far the busiest within the First Circuit and the ninth busiest among all 94 districts in the nation, with the fastest growing caseload.

According to the most recent Federal Court Management Statistics, last year–federal fiscal year 2001, or the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2001–the federal district court in Puerto Rico had a total of 2,146 new filings, or new cases brought to court. That’s 9.6% more than the 1,958 cases opened in FY 2000 and 13.6% more than the 1,889 new cases in FY 1999.

Circuit breaker

The U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico ranks No. 1 in just about every statistical measurement of workload by judge within the First Circuit, which also includes Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

Last year each of the seven federal judges in the Puerto Rico district court were assigned 307 new cases, compared with 275 for each judge in Maine (of which there are three), 252 for each in Massachusetts (13), 244 in Rhode Island (three), and 220 in New Hampshire (three).

Since district courts are not all alike, statistical measurements of the workload and efficiency of each federal court focus on the average per judge. For example, the federal court in Massachusetts, with a U.S. Census 2000 population of 6.4 million, saw 3,276 new cases last year, 1,130, or about 50%, more than Puerto Rico’s 2,146. But the district court in that state has 13 judges, almost twice Puerto Rico’s seven.

The statistics also take into account the diverse composition of the caseloads–not every case is the same. Cases vary in complexity. Criminal cases, for instance, are generally more complicated and more time-consuming than civil cases.

Accordingly, in order to account for the differing amounts of time judges require to resolve various types of civil and criminal actions, the federal judiciary developed a system that assigns relative weight to the cases filed, called weighted filings. Going by that measurement, the federal court in Puerto Rico’s 433 weighted filings per judge far surpass those of its brethren in Massachusetts (with 295 per judge), Maine (281), Rhode Island (257), and New Hampshire (241).

Other federal courts across the country are just as busy as Puerto Rico’s. On a national level, the local court ranks No. 52 out of 94 in weighted filings per judge.

The main reason for the huge discrepancy in the weighted statistics per judge in the First Circuit is the high number of federal criminal cases in Puerto Rico. Last fiscal year, each federal judge in Puerto Rico was assigned 59 new criminal cases, compared with 55 to each judge in Maine, 45 in New Hampshire, 38 in Rhode Island, and only 30 in Massachusetts.

"Part of the problem is that criminal cases have gotten much bigger and more complicated," says Laffitte. "Eight or 10 years ago, to have five or six defendants in a case was a lot. Today there are many cases with 50 and even 60 defendants. It’s a lot of work. Consider, for instance, that a judge on a criminal trial has to rule on an average of six motions per defendant. So do the math."

According to Laffitte, in 2000 the average number of defendants in a federal criminal case in Puerto Rico was three, whereas the national average was 1.4.

Federal judges in Puerto Rico not only get more cases; they finish more cases too. They lead their First Circuit colleagues in number of trials completed every year–Puerto Rico’s 31 vs. 16 each in New Hampshire and Rhode Island, 14 in Maine, and barely 12 in Massachusetts. They also lead in case terminations–i.e., cases brought to a conclusion, regardless of whether they went to trial–with 322, compared with 267 in Massachusetts, 263 in Rhode Island, and 251 each in Maine and New Hampshire.

Drug cases drag on

Federal judges in Puerto Rico are swamped and work hard. According to the Federal Court Management Statistics, however, they also take longer to bring their cases to a conclusion than just about any other federal district court.

Last year the average criminal felony case in federal court in Puerto Rico took 13.5 months from filing to disposition, longer than in any of the 93 other federal courts in the nation. Civil cases took about as long, an average of 13 months, making the federal court here No. 92 out of the 94, or the third slowest in the U.S.

Laffitte reiterated that part of the problem is the high number of felony cases in the Puerto Rico district with multiple defendants, particularly drug cases.

"If it weren’t for the federal court, Puerto Rico would be a drug society," he said, referring not only to the court but to the applicability of federal law in Puerto Rico through the federal criminal justice system. "In this [federal] court, under federal law a criminal defendant is allowed to post bail; in the local [Puerto Rico] court, on the other hand, the defendant’s right to bail is mandatory."

Laffitte also stressed the importance of the investigative tools that federal law gives the federal district attorney but which are prohibited by local criminal procedure, such as wiretapping. "It is virtually impossible to indict and convict big drug-conspiracy cases without wiretapping. It is because federal prosecutors have those tools that you see large numbers of cases and a higher percentage of convictions in federal court than in state court," said Laffitte.

According to the chief judge, federal guidelines help eliminate the disparities in sentencing that is sometimes seen in state court. It’s not that federal sentences are stricter in proportion to the crime but that they are taken literally; there is no room for interpretation.

"Under federal law, life sentence means life sentence," says Laffitte. "You leave in a pine box."

According to him, truth in sentencing serves an important social objective. "There’s nothing that infuriates people more than to find out a criminal who had been sent to jail got out [before completing the sentence]."

Asked about the increase in the incidence of white-collar crime in his court, Lafitte doesn’t hesitate to point out the large number of corruption cases that have been prosecuted in the past few years. "The Office of the District Attorney has been very effective and the people at large do have a great trust in the federal criminal justice system," he says.

Criticism of the federal justice system in general, and of the federal court in particular, has been mounting in recent years. The pro-independence movement used to be exclusively responsible for the regular attacks on the presence of federal law enforcement officials and of the federal court in Puerto Rico.

Today, however, with the controversy over Vieques generating dozens of arrests of Popular Democratic Party supporters and the government corruption cases which appear to single out the New Progressive Party, federal judges in Puerto Rico have been on the receiving end of acrid criticism from every political quarter.

But Laffitte doesn’t lose sleep over it. He knows Puerto Rican idiosyncrasy well.

"People sometimes lack an analytical conscience and therefore respond emotionally to events. That’s when you get partisan criticism," he says. "But when I realize that we are the targets of equal amounts of blue, red, and green criticism, I know the court is doing its job well, that we are right in the middle, not tipping the scale to one side or another."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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