Murder Of Judge John Roll Triggers ‘Judicial Emergency’ In Arizona
In the moments before his death, Chief Judge John Roll was waiting to speak with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) about how to solve his court’s unmanageable caseload. So his murder is all the more tragic because it has exacerbated the very problem he was working with Giffords to solve:
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.
The Senate’s failure to confirm judges has sparked a nationwide vacancy crisis. Nearly one-in-nine federal judgeships are currently vacant, and federal judges are currently retiring far faster than they are being replaced. Indeed, even Chief Justice John Roberts has spoken out on the urgent need for more confirmations.
Yet, as bad as the nationwide vacancy crisis is, the reality in Arizona is worse. Because of political pressure to prosecute more drug and immigration cases, federal criminal prosecutions in Arizona nearly doubled in just two years. As Roll warned shortly before his death, “Felony case filings were up from 3,023 in 2008 to 5,219 in 2010. … But the number of judges had decreased. It was akin to a city doubling in population without anyone adding new lanes to Main Street.”
Presently, three judgeships are vacant in the District of Arizona, and a committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States recently recommended that five additional judgeships be added to enable the court to handle its exploding caseload. If Congress fails to act, it will ultimately be the people of Arizona who suffer, and thousands of people seeking justice are forced to wait months or years before any judge has time to hear their case.
Judicial emergency declared in Arizona
Criminal trials, including shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner's, may be delayed as long as six months. The state was already facing a shortage of judges before U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was killed in Tucson.
Federal court officials declared a judicial emergency Tuesday in Arizona, allowing courts to delay criminal trials up to six months because of a shortage of judges worsened by the shooting death two weeks ago in Tucson of the state's chief jurist.
Arizona federal courts were already overwhelmed by a 65% increase in criminal cases in the last two years and two judicial vacancies when U.S. District Judge John M. Roll was killed in the Jan. 8 attack that also severely wounded Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Five others died in the shooting, and a dozen others were injured.
The emergency declaration could delay the trial of Jared Lee Loughner, who entered a not-guilty plea in a Phoenix federal courtroom Monday on charges related to the shooting of Giffords and two of her staffers. Loughner's case has been assigned to a San Diego judge but the pretrial proceedings will remain in Arizona for the time being.
A judicial emergency is a rarely used tool to suspend the demands of the Speedy Trial Act for 30 days. It was ordered last week by Judge Roslyn O. Silver, Roll's successor as chief judge. It was last used in the Southern District of New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"The need to suspend the time limits is of great urgency due to a heavy criminal caseload, a lack of adequate resources, and the tragic death of Chief Judge John Roll," Silver said. The declaration allows courts to take as long as 180 days to bring a defendant to trial, instead of the statutory 70-day limit.
On Tuesday, the Judicial Council for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Arizona, then took the even rarer step of extending Silver's emergency declaration for a year, until February 2012.
"I assume the council saw the yearlong extension as necessary because Arizona is unlikely to get its three vacancies filled within a year," said Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies the federal judiciary and nomination process. He noted that President Obama had not yet nominated anyone for the Arizona vacancies.
Obama has been slow to name jurists to the federal bench during his first two years in office, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has confirmed fewer of his nominees than those of previous presidents.
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, who heads the 9th Circuit and its Judicial Council, urged swift action to alleviate the Arizona crisis.
Arizona's federal courts have been inundated with immigration and border security cases because of stepped-up enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border. In announcing the emergency, judges said a Department of Homeland Security program that requires criminal prosecution and imprisonment of anyone unlawfully crossing the border has exacerbated their backlog. More federal prosecutors were brought in to the Tucson district, but no additional judges have been authorized, the judges said.
Judicial emergencies have been declared in the 9th Circuit only twice since the 1974 Speedy Trial Act.
A 30-day suspension of the time limit was proclaimed for the Southern District of California in 2000 due to a rise in immigration- and drug-related cases, but no trial was actually affected by the emergency, said David Madden, assistant executive for the 9th Circuit. That emergency was resolved when the San Diego-based court was authorized five new judgeships under a 2002 bill signed into law by President George W. Bush.
In 1980, the eruption of Mount St. Helens spurred the declaration of a 30-day emergency that affected at least one criminal case in the Eastern District of Washington, Madden said.
When the Speedy Trial Act took effect in 1980, two other districts — the Eastern District of New York and the Western District of Tennessee — had to invoke the emergency suspension for administrative reasons.
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Congress averted the need for a judicial emergency by passing a law allowing relocation of criminal prosecutions outside the areas affected by flooding.
Arizona is authorized 12 permanent federal judgeships and one temporary position, but three of the posts are vacant due to Roll's death, the elevation of Judge Mary H. Murguia to the 9th Circuit appellate bench and the move to semiretired senior status last year by Judge Frank R. Zapata.