Federal judicial vacancies in Texas still an emergency

A year ago today on this page, I criticized the troubling obstructionism by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas.

They have repeatedly failed to fill vacated seats in our state’s federal appellate and district courts, including their opposition to potential nominations of qualified district judges originally recommended by Republicans.

In his response letter, Sen. Cornyn objected to my comments and pointed out that he is working hard to fill these seats and to “ensure Texas has some of the best and brightest judges in these important posts.”

It has now been a year since Sen. Cornyn’s response. Our state’s federal judiciary is in abysmal shape, as there are still two vacancies on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and 10 vacancies — three more than last year — in Texas’ U.S. District Courts. The oldest vacancy goes back to 2011. Additionally, several federal judges are expected to retire in the next few years.

In comparison, there are no appellate vacancies under Missouri and Louisiana, both part of the 5th Circuit. Missouri does not have a U.S. District Court vacancy. Louisiana has three, with one vacated a month ago and two in 2015, both of which have already had Senate hearings.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, has marked all the Texas vacancies as a “judicial emergency,” accounting for 29 percent of the judicial emergencies nationwide — a feat not achieved by any other state. This designation implies that the courts’ current caseload is both excessive and unmanageable. Even if these seats are filled tomorrow, the conference has asked Congress to add many new judgeships to the federal district courts in Texas.

While school yard rifts continue to block the confirmation of Judge Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court, little attention has been given to critical lower courts.

There are nearly 900 lower federal court judgeships with lifetime appointments, of which there are 97 current and future vacancies. The lower courts hear tens of thousands more cases than the U.S. Supreme Court, and U.S. attorneys rely on these judges to convict dangerous criminals, prosecute financial fraud and environmental violations.

Moreover, the accused and private parties rely on these judges to protect their constitutional rights. But with an atrocious backlog of cases, judges can’t afford to spend sufficient time reviewing pleadings. A San Antonian injured by a major corporation is more likely to settle than wait years for her chance to be heard by a jury of her peers.

On March 15, President Barack Obama nominated five experienced individuals to fill some of the district court vacancies.

The Senate Judiciary Committee rules require both home state senators to sign a “blue slip” card, noting their approval, in order to schedule a confirmation hearing. So far, none has signed or indicated his intent to do so.

So much for working hard to fill the vacancies, Sen. Cornyn.

As long as Sens. Cornyn and Cruz continue to play politics and ignore their constitutional duty, Texans will suffer from this blatant obstruction.

Justice delayed is justice denied.

Hooman Hedayati is an attorney and a member of Texas Moratorium Network’s board of directors.

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