Push for more California judges depends on passage of immigration overhaul

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 9, 2013 

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A classic sign of California: the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

MANNY CRISOSTOMO — The Sacramento Bee/MCT

— The Senate’s big immigration bill offers long-awaited reinforcements to the overworked federal judges in California’s Central Valley.

Ultra-busy and arguably understaffed, the Eastern District of California jurists who oversee cases from Bakersfield to the Oregon border have been awaiting extra help for years. They know frustration, and also know nothing is guaranteed – especially if help depends on passage of controversial immigration legislation.

But in a move that revives some hopes, the 1,900-page immigration bill moving along on the Senate floor includes a provision adding three permanent judge positions for the Eastern District.

“The Eastern District caseload is overwhelming,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said this past week, adding that “over 25 percent of the Eastern District’s criminal caseload is immigration-related, and if comprehensive immigration reform is enacted, both civil and criminal caseloads are likely to grow.”

Feinstein’s colleague, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, supports the measure, and is also playing a lead role of her own on another Easter District judicial front.

Under a long-standing arrangement, Feinstein and Boxer trade off making recommendations for filling federal judicial vacancies in California. It’s Boxer’s turn to find a replacement for a slot in the Fresno courthouse currently held by Senior Judge Anthony W. Ishii.

Ishii advised the Obama administration in November 2011 that he was going to take senior status, a heads-up for officials to start seeking a replacement. He officially moved to senior status — akin to retirement, but one that allows a judge to continue hearing cases — last October.

“Regrettably, my position remains unfilled to this date, with no firm indication as to when our district might anticipate the appointment of a new district judge to fill the opening,” Ishii said.

Filling his post, he said, would relieve some of the Fresno court’s caseload burden, but would still leave the local court with caseloads higher than the national average.

“Frankly, Judge (Lawrence) O’Neill and I are swamped,” Ishii said.

Boxer’s office declined, as a matter of policy, to discuss the nomination process. Individuals familiar with the Eastern District, though, said on the condition of anonymity that names have been forwarded to the White House for further vetting.

Boxer’s screening committee has finished its work, said its chairman, Fresno attorney Don Fischbach.

Filling Ishii’s position took longer than expected because President Barack Obama’s administration thought the initial application pool was too small. A second call for applicants went out. Another snag was Obama’s re-election campaign and uncertainty that he would win a second term.

The screening committee’s role involved reviewing 30-page questionnaires that each applicant filled out. Phone calls then went to judges and attorneys. The committee provided Boxer’s office with summaries of its findings, and from that, the senator made a recommendation to the White House.

Several people in Fresno’s legal community with knowledge of the process said all the finalists are women.

California lawmakers have tried for years to add more judges.

Back in 2003, then-Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield offered a bill adding three to the Eastern District. That year, a total of 5,715 cases were filed in the district. The total number of cases jumped to 6,904 for the year ending Sept. 30, 2012, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Each Eastern District judge now carries a weighted filing caseload of 1,132 cases, which is second highest in the nation and more than twice the national average. The weighted filing measurement basically means that complicated cases get more weight because they take longer. In 2003, when Thomas introduced his bill adding more judges, the Eastern District judges carried a weighted filing caseload of 767.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who now represents Thomas’s former congressional district, has also backed legislation to add more Eastern District judges. McCarthy has said he wants a judge to serve in Bakersfield, and has stated a preference that legislation adding judges move through “regular order,” rather than be added to separate legislation like the immigration bill.

It frustrates the federal judges that only a few members of Congress seem sympathetic to their plight.

“We should be able to rely on all members of Congress — and not just a few — to do its job by providing the needed resources for the courts,” O’Neill said

The Eastern District’s cases run the gamut, from tragic to bizarre.

Over the past week, for instance, the children of the late Raul Rosas sued several Fresno police officers and the city, among others, for the June 2011, death of their father in an incident where Rosas was hog-tied, shot with a Taser and, the lawsuit claims, drowned with a water hose.

In another lawsuit, a prison inmate filed a rambling, handwritten complaint seeking $5 million. In Sacramento, the Sikh owner of a Yuba City car dealership filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination by Department of Motor Vehicles investigators.

The immigration bill does not specify whether the judges would be based in Fresno or Sacramento, the two primary courthouse locations for the sprawling district. .

“Ultimately that will be a decision made by the chief judge of this district, after a full discussion with all of our other district judges,” O’Neill said.

The Republican-controlled House has not yet written its own version of an immigration bill. But its prospects would be uncertain as the GOP caucus is sharply divided over the immigration and border control issues.

Ellis, of The Fresno Bee, reported from Fresno, Calif.

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