The number of federal judicial vacancies in Texas is among the highest in the nation and the problem is compounded by budget cuts and a growing volume of felony cases that are being delayed, federal officials say.
There are eight vacancies on district benches in Texas and two more are expected within the year. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel said the problem is particularly acute in the western judicial district of Texas. The district has the second-highest number of criminal felony filings per judge in the country, according to the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1q4LRy0 ).
"We are under water here," said Yeakel, who hears cases in Austin. "We need new federal judges by every objective standard, and that's not what we are getting."
Only two U.S. district judges, including Yeakel, hear the majority of the cases in Austin, and the last judicial position for the division was created in 1991, though the population has since doubled.
Meanwhile, federal cuts over the years have resulted in staff reductions and the elimination of court programs. Federal sequestration measures and last year's government shutdown have further reduced spending on federal courts to the lowest levels in at least a decade.
Court officials say more cases are placed on hold, defendants spend more time in jail and there are longer waits to appear in court.
"The whole system is under enormous stress," said former U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson, who left the bench in San Antonio in 2008 and has yet to be replaced. "It is important that all three branches of government work, and right now the judicial branch is not working. It is a matter of high emergency, at least at the trial court level."
The Judicial Conference of the United States has recommended increasing the number of federal judgeships in the state by eight, as well as a few additional temporary judges.
"Judges are not only doing their jobs and handling their dockets, but they are also handling the dockets of their retired colleagues," said Furgeson, now the dean of the new University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law. "Imagine if the Dallas Mavericks or the San Antonio Spurs or the Houston Rockets played their games with only four players on the court. Things wouldn't go very well."
Part of the delay in filling the judicial slots is that it involves a long process with many different players, legal experts said. State senators recommend candidates to the White House, which reviews the nominees and makes federal court appointments. Then they need confirmation from the Senate.
"There are multiple kinds of gridlock, and there have been obstruction efforts at every level of the judicial nomination process," said Michelle Schwartz, director of Justice Programs at the Alliance for Justice. "But the obstruction starts from the very beginning. When the president looks first to home state senators to nominate candidates, all too often we see senators dragging their feet in making recommendations."