Federal court officials declared a judicial emergency Tuesday in Arizona, allowing courts to delay criminal trials up to six months because of a shortage of judges worsened by the shooting death two weeks ago of the state's chief judge in Tucson.
Arizona federal courts were already overwhelmed by a 65 percent increase in criminal cases in the past two years and two judicial vacancies when U.S. District Judge John Roll was killed in the Jan. 8 attack that also severely wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Five others died in the shooting, and a dozen others were injured.
The emergency declaration could delay the trial of the accused shooter Jared Lee Loughner. His case has been assigned to a San Diego judge but the pretrial proceedings will remain in Arizona for the time being.
A judicial emergency is a rarely used tool to suspend the demands of the Speedy Trial Act for 30 days and was ordered last week by Judge Roslyn Silver, Roll's successor as chief judge. It was last used in the Southern District of New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The declaration allows courts to take up to 180 days to bring a defendant to trial, instead of the statutory 70-day limit.
On Tuesday, the Judicial Council for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Arizona, then took the even rarer step of extending Silver's emergency declaration until February 2012.
"I assume the council saw the yearlong extension as necessary because Arizona is unlikely to get its three vacancies filled within a year," said Russell Wheeler, a Brookings Institution scholar who studies the federal judiciary and nomination process. He noted that President Barack Obama has not yet nominated anyone for the Arizona vacancies.
Obama has been slow to name judges to the federal bench during his first two years in office, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has confirmed fewer of his nominees than those of previous presidents.