Representative Gabby Giffords’ recovery has been the central focus of the aftermath of the January 8 shooting in Arizona. Its understandable that news organizations will want to focus on something positive to counteract the terrible nature of the incident. But the death of John Roll, who was the Chief Judge of the Federal District Court in Arizona has brought the Federal Court in that State to declare a state of emergency due to the tremendous backlog of cases. Arizona had two Federal judicial vacancies at the time of Judge Roll’s death. Those two vacancies caused each judge to carry a load of 1,200 cases. Tough to handle especially in light of some strict time frames imposed by the district – criminal defendants have to be indicted within 30 days of arrest and they must be brought to trial within 70 days of indictment. Judge Roll’s sudden death will only add to the logjam of defendants awaiting trial.
This has resulted in current chief judge Roslyn Silver to declare a state of emergency which allows courts to suspend and/or extend the 70 day period between indictment and trial. The state of emergency has no effect on the requirement that a defendant be indicted within 30 days. So now defendants can wait an indefinite period of time to be taken to trial. Of course a lengthy delay disrupts lives, allows memories to fade and witnesses to disappear. The old maxim Justice delayed is justice denied becomes applicable. The state of emergency can last up to one year. One can only imagine how deep the backlog will be at that time as cases just keep piling up in the already busy court. The federal court in Arizona has the third highest criminal caseload among the nation’s 94 federal trial courts, driven by illegal immigration cases and the rampant drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. Criminal cases in that court have increased 65 percent since 2008.
There is bipartisan blame to assign to the delay in filling these judicial appointments. The Bush and Obama administration have been hampered by Congress’ slow motion method of approving judicial candidates. It has become a political game where the party in control of the White House finds that the opposing party is in no hurry to approve its selections. Judicial nominations require Senate approval and the rule in the Senate is that a single Senator from the home state where the judicial position is can block an appointment if he or she wants to. Then when a member of the Senate provides a name to the White House for consideration, if it comes from the opposite party, the White House sits on appointing anyone to the seat. The Obama administration has been particularly slow in making judicial nominations.
While Arizona’s caseload was made much worse by the sudden loss of Judge Roll, it is not the only state feeling the pinch. According to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, there are currently 101 judicial vacancies in the federal district and appellate courts, with 48 presidential nominations awaiting confirmation. Utah and Texas face such huge backlogs that they are near declaring a state of emergency as well. Rhode Island’s top federal judge, Mary Lisi, has stated that a four-year judicial vacancy left open amid partisan bickering in the U.S. Senate has led her court to take the unusual step of reassigning more than two dozen civil cases to judges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The Houston-based Southern District of Texas has the second largest number of drug prosecutions nationally, second only to the San Antonio-based Western district. Yet Texas has six judicial vacancies that remain unfilled two years into the Obama administration.
Congress needs to act swiftly on the 48 pending judicial nominations sent by the White House and the President needs to get more names into Congress to fill the remaining vacancies. Bad enough that federal judgeships have become political gifts to be doled out or held back on a whim. They should not be delayed to the point where people’s rights are being trampled upon. Bipartisanship action is needed to get rid of the backlog, have the full judiciary in place and allow litigants to have their day in court in a reasonable time frame.