Murder Of Judge John Roll Triggers ‘Judicial Emergency’ In Arizona

The late Chief Judge John Roll of the United States District Court for the District of 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.