Politics & Government

Bill seeks more judges for federal bench in California, Arizona

WASHINGTON — Overworked federal judges in the Central Valley and Arizona would get reinforcements under a bill reintroduced this week by senators who hope for better luck this time.

Citing an ongoing "judicial emergency" in two states, a bipartisan Senate alliance proposes adding six new judges and converting two additional temporary judicial slots to permanent positions.

Four of the new judges would be based either in Sacramento or Fresno.

The proposal co-authored by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer faces Capitol Hill hurdles, though it was enough to draw normally apolitical federal judges into the legislative fray.

"The Eastern District of California desperately needs additional district judgeships because of our crushing caseload," declared Fresno-based U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii.

Ishii is the chief district judge of the Eastern District of California, which serves 34 counties ranging from the Tehachapi Mountains in the south to the Oregon border in the north. The district, with two main courthouses in Fresno and Sacramento, consistently ranks among the busiest in the nation.

In fiscal 2010, 5,842 civil cases and 993 criminal cases were filed in the Eastern District. The district' s judges had 7,194 pending cases hanging over their heads, 10 percent of which had been looming for three years or longer.

"It's a very serious situation," Feinstein said in an interview Wednesday.

The roster of judges has not increased to match the rising number of cases, resulting in more work for everyone. There are currently 12 judges in the district, six of them on senior status.

For federal judges nationwide, the average weighted caseload is 471. The weighted caseload takes into account the different burdens imposed by different kinds of cases. The average weighted caseload in the Eastern District of California is 1,095, more than twice the national average.

And the cases just keep piling up. On Tuesday, for instance, the district's electronic docket shows that 16 cases were filed, running a wide gamut.

State prison inmate Bobby Lee Williams, for instance, handwrote a challenge to his 2007 conviction in Madera County Superior Court. Siskiyou County resident Ida Garwood sued her former employer for sex discrimination. Sacramento County attorney Scott N. Johnson sued several companies for discrimination against the disabled.

Some suits appear destined for quick dismissal, such as one by a Sacramento man who wrote that "my rights as an American citizen are being stole my name has worth and because it does it has been stole from," but every court action requires at least a little time.

"This legislation extends a lifeline to courts that are struggling to stay afloat amidst overwhelming caseloads," opined Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kozinski and Ishii took the relatively unusual step of joining in a press statement issued in support of the Emergency Judicial Relief Act of 2011. Judges usually don't get too involved in supporting or opposing specific legislation.

Even so, Feinstein acknowledged that "it's hard to tell" how this year's bill will fare, in part because of conservatives' concerns about costs. District court judges currently earn $174,000 a year.

The bill's prospects may be boosted a little by combining Arizona with California. That was enough to bring Arizona Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain on board, providing the bipartisan leverage often necessary in a bitterly divided Congress.

"We've tried to put together a bill that could get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and I think we have," Feinstein said.

A companion bill has not yet been introduced in the House.