Gavel Grab

U.S. Judicial Vacancies Now at 'Crisis Point'

With federal judges retiring at a rate of one per week now, the rising number of vacancies on the U.S. bench has reached a crisis point, a front-page Washington Post article declares today. It also reports on new confirmation action in the Senate.

The growing judicial backlog has prompted others, including U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, to state that a crisis exists in our courts. Yet the prominent display and comprehensive treatment given to the story by the influential newspaper in the nation’s capital is likely to grab widespread attention, including that of lawmakers. The Post article begins:

“Federal judges have been retiring at a rate of one per week this year, driving up vacancies that have nearly doubled since President Obama took office. The departures are increasing workloads dramatically and delaying trials in some of the nation’s federal courts.

“The crisis is most acute along the southwestern border, where immigration and drug cases have overwhelmed court officials.”

The article is headlined, “Vacancies on federal bench hit crisis point: Senate GOP, White House vow to work together to speed judges’ confirmations.”

Arizona recently declared a judicial emergency (see Gavel Grab), and the three federal judges in Tucson — site of the recent shooting melee — are dealing with 1,200 criminal cases each. “It’s a dire situation,” said Chief District Judge Roslyn O. Silver.

There are 101 vacancies among 857 district and circuit judgeships, compared to 54 when Obama took office. Some of the most alarmed language in the article about the impact of the vacancies comes from Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:

“Ultimately, I think people will lose faith in the rule of law.

“We as a nation believe that if you have a dispute, you go to court and within a reasonable period of time, you get a decision.”

A “gentleman’s agreement” was reached between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in January to reduce procedural roadblocks that have gotten in the way of confirming nominations, and nominees from Arkansas, Oregon and Texas were confirmed in the Senate Monday. In upcoming weeks, eight more nominees may get votes.

The growing backlog has been attributed to partisan delaying tactics by Republicans, a slow pace of nominations from Obama’s White House and a “dysfunctional Senate confirmation system,” according to the Post. Its article examines not only the crisis in the courts but Obama’s success nonetheless at beginning to put his stamp on the federal judiciary.

As a result of his appointments, two of the nation’s 13 circuits have come under control of Democratic appointees. One of them is the Richmond-based Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, long regarded as perhaps the most conservative in the country. In addition, women and minorities have comprised about three-fourths of his appointees, and the newspaper called that “a historically high rate.”

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial, meanwhile, was headlined, “Senate’s pettiness in judicial appointments has obstructed justice.” It reported that three of four federal judgeships are vacant in the Central District of Illinois, where a judicial emergency has been declared. Chief Judge Michael P. McCuskey of that federal district told the newspaper:

“The criminal docket is like a continuing blizzard.

“We can’t turn it off, and we can’t dig out.”

An article in The Hill newspaper reported on the Senate’s confirmation of three judicial nominees who were considered “non-controversial.” One of them, Judge Marco Hernandez of Oregon, is the “is the first federal judge to be nominated by both former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama,” according to an article in The Oregonian. He first was nominated in 2008.

You can learn more detail about Obama’s nominations record, and about the judicial backlog, from Gavel Grab.

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