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.