WASHINGTON — Washington gridlock has created a legal logjam when it comes to several key Utah judicial appointments, leaving an unprecedented set of vacancies, which, some say, could endanger the administration of justice.
Among the positions still without a permanent replacement after many months are a district court judge, an appeals court judge and a U.S. attorney for Utah.
"It is a problem," said former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, who left that post nearly a year ago. "It's one in which you sort of sit back and scratch your head at why it has taken so long."
Why so long?
In a word, politics.
"When people talk about nothing happening in Washington, this encapsulates it," said Daniel Medwed, a University of Utah law professor. "This represents it more than anything."
The Obama administration has been slow to name appointments for Utah's U.S. attorney and a judicial vacancy on Utah's federal district court. Meantime, appointments to federal courts nationwide are stuck in the increasingly polarized Senate confirmation process.
In the spring of '09 Dale Kimball, the judge overseeing the Brian David Mitchell trial, told the White House he was planning to retire.
He's now on senior status, working, but with a caseload that's expected to be reduced next year.
Chief Judge Tena Campbell is retiring in January, soon taking fewer cases.
Federal prosecutor Carlie Christensen is now U.S. attorney for Utah, on a acting basis.
All of those jobs await a permanent selection.
Former U.S. Attorney Scott Matheson was picked by the administration to a post on the 10th Circuit Court in Denver.
An uncontroversial pick, he was approved by a Senate committee in June and awaits a vote by the full Senate.
"It is a classic stall ball, where the party that's not in power simply stalls the other side's appointees," said Medwed. "When the other side gets into power, the ball is reversed and the other side plays stall ball. It's horrible."
The timing couldn't be worse.
Criminal cases are up 19 percent this year.
Civil caseloads in Utah's district court are up 9 percent, with a number of complicated lawsuits involving mortgage fraud in the pipeline.
Having more cases and fewer judges "slows down the litigation and the cases that are pending," said Mark Jones, the clerk of the court for U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. "We're second in the circuit for the number of cases that are pending."
In a statement, Melodie Rydalch, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office, said Christensen, the acting U.S. attorney, is "very experienced" and has "full authority to hire, make prosecution decisions and approve case resolutions."
But longtime Salt Lake defense attorney Fred Metos, who has dealt with that office for years, said the lack of a permanent appointment creates "a limbo" situation.
"I just don't think it's good for morale to go without knowing who your boss is going to be on a day-to-day basis," Metos said. "Then they had so many rumors about who was going to get the job. Someone was out and the next guy is in and then the next guy is out. Right now, just nobody knows."
Tolman, who was appointed by President George Bush, said it's baffling the White House has left so many posts without nominees.
"Any administration has that, typically, as one of their highest priorities," Tolman said, "to fill those judicial positions."
Both the White House and a key Utahn on judicial appointments, Sen. Orrin Hatch, declined comment.
As for a vote on Matheson's nomination, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. D-Nev., e-mailed a statement. "We hope that we will have Republican cooperation to confirm all of the president's nominees in the coming weeks," said Regan Lachapelle, Reid's deputy communications director. "The number of judicial vacancies in our federal courts is reaching a crisis point, and we hope that Republicans will work with us to ensure that justice for Americans seeking redress in our overwhelmed court system is no longer denied or delayed."