Judicial Emergency in Arizona Highlights Crisis Caused by Senate Stalling

Judge John Roll went to Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's town meeting on January 15 to talk about the overload of cases the federal judiciary in Arizona is experiencing. He was assassinated at that event, resulting in an even greater problem for the Arizona judiciary.

The issue has become a full-blown crisis in the wake of his death. Judge Roslyn O. Silver, who took Roll's place as chief judge for Arizona, on Friday declared a judicial emergency to allow statutory time limits for trying accused criminals to be temporarily suspended in the district because of an acute shortage of judges. On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals extended Silver's temporary order for a year....

Several factors have contributed to the emergency. Federal felony caseloads are at an all-time high in Arizona amid the political clamor over tougher enforcement of border immigration and drug laws. Yet partisan wrangling in the nation's capital has slowed the flow of judicial appointments to many states, not just Arizona, leaving the federal bench overwhelmed by caseloads.

Roll's death only worsened Arizona's problem, cutting the number of federal judges in the busy Tucson division from four to three and forcing redistribution of Roll's caseload of more than 900 criminal cases and various civil matters.

Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said in a statement Tuesday that he was hopeful the emergency declaration would prompt congressional action. If Congress adds more judgeships, it will fall to Arizona's delegation to make recommendations, and be up to President Barack Obama to see those seats filled.

"It doesn't do any good if you get the judgeships and don't get the nominations," said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "Ultimately, it's the president's call."

The president's call, and he has been slow to nominate. But the primary problem is the Senate, where too many nominations have gone to die. The situation has become so dire that a group of Republican-appointed federal judges have pleaded with the Senate to confirm judges. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sharply criticized the Senate in his recently released State of the Judiciary report.

The crisis extends well beyond Arizona, with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts identifying 44 "judicial emergencies" in federal courts where there are just not enough judges to hear the cases pending before the courts. Perhaps Judge Roll's assassination will provide new impetus for Obama to prioritize finding jurists for the open positions on the bench, and for the Senate to figure out how to move them.


Daily Kos / By Joan McCarter

Posted at January 27, 2011, 3:56am

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