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U.S. Judges in San Diego Declare Caseload Emergency

Courts: Congress rejects plea to add jurists. Federal crackdowns on drug smuggling and illegal immigrants have swollen the system.

November 01, 2000|RICHARD A. SERRANO and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN DIEGO — U.S. District Court judges here, burdened with the nation's highest federal caseload, have declared a "judicial emergency" after Congress rejected their plea to include money for more judges in a spending bill sent to President Clinton.

Chief Judge Marilyn L. Huff said Tuesday that she and seven colleagues are searching for ways to streamline handling of civil and criminal cases to prevent the courts from becoming paralyzed or cases from being summarily dismissed. Under federal law, criminal cases must be heard in a "timely manner" or dismissed.

"We are in bad shape, with no light at the end of the tunnel," Huff said.

Although the San Diego court, which hears cases from San Diego and Imperial counties, has seen a spiraling number of cases because of a federal crackdown on the smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants along the Mexican border, repeated requests for additional judges have been ignored.

The U.S. Judicial Conference, representing federal courts nationwide, recommended eight new judge positions for San Diego.

A judiciary appropriations bill passed by Congress, HR4690, included one judge each for 10 overburdened district courts across the United States but none for San Diego, although judicial officials call it the nation's most overcrowded court. Huff spent last week lobbying Congress on behalf of San Diego, to no avail.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said it was "incomprehensible" to her that new judgeships for San Diego had been dropped out of the bill. A Feinstein bill to add judgeships for San Diego died in committee.

"This is typical governmental-congressional ignorance," fumed Mario Conte, head of Federal Defenders, which provides legal defense for indigents. "It's very simple: Congress loves to add prosecutors and [law enforcement] agents but neglects to add judges, defense attorneys and marshals, and then they wonder why there is a problem."

Huff said that the court had been relying on retired judges but that two of them have died in the last year and a third was injured in a car accident. A fourth is 86, and no longer able to sit on the bench.

Under the "judicial emergency" order, some court procedures will be streamlined, such as oral arguments in civil cases and pre-sentence reports in criminal matters.

The U.S. attorney's office has already begun farming out some drug cases to the district attorneys in San Diego and Imperial counties to be tried in state courts.

U.S. Atty. Gregory Vega said he will meet soon with Huff to work on further case-reduction methods.

"It's tragic that we didn't get more judges," Vega said. "This is not a pro-prosecution issue or a pro-defense issue, this is simply an issue dealing with the fair administration of justice."

Huff said that in the last five years, more than 1,400 new positions for the Border Patrol, Customs Service, FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have been filled in the district. The result is that the court caseload has doubled.

But not one federal judge position has been created for the San Diego court in 10 years.

Although the appropriations bill has been approved, Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego) has appealed to Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Kentucky), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary, for help.

The court in San Diego, Bilbray wrote Rogers, is in "dire need" of at least one judgeship. Bilbray said San Diego's only hope this session is if the spending bill is returned by Clinton for further discussion in Congress.

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Serrano reported from Washington and Perry reported from San Diego.

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