/ Modified may 20, 2014 4:10 p.m.

AZ Federal Court Nearing Full Strength With New Appointees

Earlier this year, court operating on as few as 7 judges; very low number for district that sees most criminal cases in the country.



It's been nearly four years since Arizona had a full compliment of judges in its federal court district.

And earlier this year, the court was operating on as few as seven judges, meaning six seats were empty.

That's a very low number for the federal court district that sees the most criminal cases in the country. In 2011, Arizona district saw 8,070 cases filed.

“There was a period of time where we had by far the highest case load in the country," said Chief Judge Raner Collins. "Judges in Tucson were averaging almost 1,300 cases apiece.”

Loads of that size meant increased waiting time, and the possibility that a visiting judge would hear a case.

“Because of the lack of a full roster, we have been seeing a lot of visiting judges," said Jon Sands, head public defender of the Federal Public Defender Arizona District. "This means federal judges from other districts come to this district because of the judicial emergency and the tremendous case loads.”

A large portion of why Arizona's federal courts are so busy comes from the state's location, bordering Mexico.

Statistics from 2011 showed the federal court districts that make touch the country's southern border - Arizona, west Texas, south Texas, Southern California, and New Mexico - were the busiest for criminal cases.

Illegal border crossings and smuggling are big drivers of caseloads. In 2012, drug cases made up 32 percent of all federal criminal cases, while immigration cases made up 27 percent.

Those cases can also move at a slower pace due to cultural barriers.

“When people come from a country where they don’t speak the language, don’t know the system, that certainly makes things take a little bit longer," Collins said. "That’s not going to change no matter how many judges we have. We’re still going to have most of our cases involving people who don’t speak the language, and are not very well educated, in a country that is foreign to them.”

The hope of many who are involved in Arizona is that, by having judges who are familiar with the barriers border cases can present, the process will move more quickly.

“With a full roster, the judges are here all the time, and matters will be solved expeditiously,” Sands said.

Collins said some of the judges have already been sworn in, and he hopes to have them all at work by the end of May.

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