“The court has to appear normal to the outside world. Even though things are really abnormal inside, it’s my job to keep a sense of normalcy and not to draw attention to the court.”

–Chief Judge Keith Watkins, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama

It’s an election year, which is already pretty rough going. Then in February, Justice Antonin Scalia died leaving an open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. In a split second there was a rare opening on the Court. But as the days and months pass, it’s become more like a black hole. Senate Republicans immediately declared that they would not hold hearings or take up a vote on anyone President Obama nominates to fill the vacancy. That it’s up to whomever is elected President in November, to fill the seat on the highest court.  

The Supreme Court isn’t the only federal court with an empty seat. There are dozens of unfilled judicial vacancies on federal courts across the country. Some seats have been empty for months, others for a years. One District Court has had a vacancy for more than a decade.  While politicians argue about who should fill the seats, federal judges across the country work day and night to try and handle an ever-growing backlog of cases.

Reporter Ashley Cleek tells the story of Chief Judge Keith Watkins, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.



The Hold Up was reported by Ashley Cleek, edited by Annie Aviles, with sound design and production by Jonathan Hirsch.  Alyssa Bernstein, Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle, Shani Aviram, and Nancy Mullane provided production support.

Special thanks to the many federal judges who took time out of their very busy schedules to talk to us.

The music in this episode is from Blue Dot Sessions.

Full Transcript of The Hold Up




This episode of Life of the Law was funded in part by grants from the Open Society Foundations, the Law and Society Association, the Proteus Fund, the  Ford Foundation, and the National Science Foundation.

Our reporting was sponsored by Squarespace and The Great Courses Plus. Be sure to use the promo code LAW at check out to receive special benefits as a Life of the Law listener.

© Copyright 2016 Life of the Law. All rights reserved.