The U.S. Senate on Wednesday began confirming six judges to federal District Court in Arizona, giving much-needed help to the overburdened court.
The court is one of the busiest in the nation, having declared a judicial emergency in 2011.
The judicial nominees include Diane Humetewa, who became the first Native American woman to serve on the federal bench in a 96-0 vote.
Judge Raner Collins, who currently presides as chief judge for Arizona, said seven judges have been juggling a caseload that is supposed to be handled by 13.
“This will greatly reduce the workload on the remaining seven judges,” Collins said. “Just know that help is coming very quickly will help a lot.”
Collins said lawmakers in Washington, D.C., deserve the credit for the positions finally getting filled.
“It’s hard work from our senators, hard from the White House, hard work from Congress,” Collins said. “All those parties have to get together for this to happen.”
Judge Steven Paul Logan, who serves as a magistrate judge in Arizona federal court, and John Joseph Tuchi, chief assistant U.S. attorney for Arizona, were also confirmed in 96-0 votes. Confirmation votes on the other nominees are scheduled for Thursday.
Whitney Cunningham, State Bar of Arizona president, said federal court judges in Arizona face a caseload that is 20 percent higher than the national average.
The six bench seats that have sat vacant have led to relying on judges who are retired or visiting from other states. The latter has led to trouble for some because judges from out of state aren’t always familiar with Arizona laws, Cunningham said.
“We want our own judges who are members of Arizona’s bar and know our laws and know our jurisprudence. This is a great day for us. We get our judges back,” Cunningham said.
According to the U.S. District Court website, then Chief District Judge Rosalyn Silver declared a judicial emergency in 2011 to temporarily suspend the time limit imposed on bringing defendants to trial. The Speedy Trial Act mandates that a federal criminal trial begin within 70 days after a criminal complaint or indictment is filed. A judicial emergency can extend that deadline to a maximum of 180 days.
At the time, Silver said the suspension was needed because of a heavy caseload, a lack of adequate resources and the death of Chief Judge John Roll.
Roll was among six people killed Jan. 8, 2011, in a shooting outside a Tucson supermarket that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several others. Before he died, Roll had begun the process of pronouncing a judicial emergency.
Arizona has the third-highest criminal caseload out of 94 federal trial courts in the U.S., according to the federal courts. Officials at the time attributed the rise in trials to cases of drug smuggling and illegal immigration at the Arizona-Mexico border.
Collins said the civil cases have been hurt by the backlog as well. He is hoping that judges will now have more time to devote to civil matters. Right now in a busy court like Arizona’s, it is not unusual to wait as long as three years for a civil trial to start.
Meanwhile, the American Indian community has been monitoring the nomination of Humetewa, a former U.S. Attorney and appellate court judge to the Hopi Nation. While other ethnic groups and women have made strides in reaching the federal bench, there has never been an American Indian appointed to the Supreme Court or the federal appellate bench. Out of the nation’s more than 860 federal judgeships, not one is currently occupied by an American Indian.
The National Congress of American Indians praised the confirmation Wednesday, saying Humetewa has dedicated her time to serving the interests of Native peoples.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota, called Humetewa’s appointment historic.
“It’s long overdue that Native Americans are better represented on the federal bench, and today’s vote is an important step forward,” Heitkamp said.