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In our opinion: Federal judicial vacancies

Published: Thursday, Feb. 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Sen. Mike Lee

Scott G. Winterton, Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Unfilled vacancies in the federal judiciary are exacting a toll on the administration of justice throughout the country.

When cases cannot be heard expeditiously, lives are unnecessarily disrupted through lack of resolution. Evidence molders. Memories fade. Justice is delayed. Rights are denied.

According to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, there are currently 101 judicial vacancies in the federal district and appellate courts, with 48 presidential nominations awaiting confirmation.

In Utah, we now have two judicial vacancies — one created when Judge Dale Kimball took senior status in 2009 and one recently created when Judge Tena Campbell took senior status at the beginning of this year.

These vacancies occur at the same time that the number of both criminal and civil cases in Utah's federal courts is increasing substantially.

Consequently, according the Utah State Bar Association and the Utah Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, Utah's three active federal district court judges are now assigned an average of 128 criminal cases and 341 civil cases.

Because criminal cases take precedence over civil cases, a quarter of federal civil cases in Utah have now languished in the federal courts in excess of 18 months.

We can thank Utah's senior status federal judges for shouldering part of this burden by each taking on a sizeable case load. Similarly, the U.S. magistrates have taken on, through rules approved to deal with this kind of backlog, cases that were once previously reserved to confirmed federal judges.

The backlog in Utah's federal courts has not quite reached what the federal courts deem a "judicial emergency."

But with both of its senators on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, it is unthinkable that Utah should have to reach that extreme designation to get movement on nomination, let alone confirmation. The current backlog is already harming the administration of federal justice in Utah.

We know that the White House Office of Legal Counsel consulted with Sen. Orrin Hatch long ago about qualified individuals who could fill the seat vacated by Judge Kimball. Hatch has also been consulted about the seat vacated by Judge Campbell. We trust that Sen. Mike Lee will be similarly consulted.

The onus in this process apparently lies with a White House that has been inexplicably tardy in making judicial nominations. We urge President Obama to move quickly on the recommendations of Utah's senators to nominate qualified judges who can provide Utah's victims of federal crimes and its civil litigants prompt access to impartial federal justice.

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