Kern cases impacted due to shortage of federal judges in Central Valley

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The families of Lee Johnson and Nancy Garrett speak at a press conference held at Chain Cohn Stiles regarding a federal judge shortage in the Central Valley.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — In a move that will impact hundreds of Kern County cases, a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno will stop scheduling new civil trial dates because he’s now handling his own assigned cases and those of another judge who retired Feb. 2.

Calling the situation a “judicial emergency” for the Eastern District of California, Judge Dale A. Drozd said the two civil caseloads over which he is now presiding involve trials scheduled through the end of 2021, and which will likely miss their scheduled dates.

Due to the “enormous criminal caseload” he faces with Judge Lawrence O’Neill’s retirement, Drozd wrote in a Feb. 3 standing order, civil cases over which he’s presiding will not include a trial date, only dates for a final pretrial conference.

Additionally, Drozd said he will no longer hear oral arguments on civil motions as the time for such hearings is “no longer feasible” under the judicial emergency.

“These are uncharted waters for this court,” Drozd wrote. “The emergency procedures announced above are being implemented reluctantly. They are not, in the undersigned’s view, conducive to the fair administration of justice. However, the court has been placed in an untenable position in which it simply has no choice.”

Attorneys with Chain Cohn Stiles said hundreds of local cases and families are being impacted by the emergency. Among them are the families of William “Lee” Johnson and Nancy Joyce Garrett.

Johnson suffered serious injuries in a December 2018 explosion at a compressed natural gas station in Buttonwillow. Garrett was killed when a Kern County sheriff’s deputy ran a red light and collided with her vehicle.

Both cases are now in limbo, so attorney Matthew C. Clark, senior partner with Chain Cohn Stiles. Both had trial dates scheduled, but now there’s no telling as to when they will actually be resolved.

In the meantime, the families are left waiting, uncertain of when they’ll get closure.

“We’re not young,” said 66-year-old Joan Johnson, Lee Johnson’s wife.

“We don’t want to be 90 when this is resolved.”

The families have written to their local representatives for help. They hope if enough pressure is applied more judges will be appointed and civil cases in the Eastern District will start getting trial dates again.

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