WASHINGTON — Federal judges have been retiring at a rate of one per week this year, driving up vacancies that have nearly doubled since President Barack Obama took office. The departures are increasing workloads dramatically and delaying trials in some federal courts.
The crisis is most acute along the southwestern border, where immigration and drug cases have overwhelmed court officials. Arizona recently declared a judicial emergency, extending the deadline to put defendants on trial. The three judges in Tucson, the site of last month's shooting rampage, are handling about 1,200 criminal cases apiece.
"It's a dire situation," said Roslyn Silver, the state's chief judge.
In central Illinois, three of the four judgeships are vacant after two of Obama's nominees did not get a vote on the Senate floor.
Chief Judge Michael McCuskey said he is commuting 90 miles between Urbana and Springfield and relying on two 81-year-old "senior" judges to fill the gap. "I had a heart attack six years ago, and my cardiologist told me recently, 'You need to reduce your stress,' " he said. "I told him only the U.S. Senate can reduce my stress."
Since Obama took office, federal judicial vacancies have risen steadily as dozens of judges have left without being replaced by the president's nominees. Experts blame Republican delaying tactics, slow White House nominations and a dysfunctional Senate confirmation system.
Senate Republicans and the White House are vowing to work together to set aside the divisions that have slowed confirmations, and the Senate on Monday approved Obama nominees for judgeships in Arkansas, Oregon and Texas.
If the backlog eases, Obama will have the chance to appoint dozens of judges who might gradually reverse what many consider a conservative drift in the lower federal courts under the George W. Bush administration.
And about three-fourths of Obama's appointees have been women or minorities, a historically high rate aimed at diversifying a judiciary that is made up of nearly 60 percent white men.
There are now 101 vacancies among the nation's 857 district and circuit judgeships, with 46 classified as judicial emergencies in which courts are struggling to keep up with the workload.