Gazette opinion: 2 emergencies: Montana needs prompt judicial relief

2013-07-26T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: 2 emergencies: Montana needs prompt judicial relief The Billings Gazette
July 26, 2013 12:00 am

Montana has two “judicial emergencies” that demand prompt action by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate.

Two of the three U.S. District judge slots in our state are vacant. And Montana’s U.S. District Courts are busy in a state with millions of acres of federal land, seven Indian reservations and serious drug trafficking issues.

Chief Judge Dana Christensen, the only active judge, and the senior judges, who have limited caseloads, are traveling across the state for court hearings as are attorneys and other court personnel. Being short two-thirds of the active judiciary is a terribly inefficient situation.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Christensen “is devoting countless hours traveling from Missoula to Great Falls to help with the docket. Senior Judge Don Molloy is traveling 345 miles from Missoula to Billings each month to cover this docket.”

Watters and Morris

As Montana’s senior senator, Baucus was responsible for recommending nominees to President Barack Obama. He recommended state District Judge Susan Watters for the Billings federal judgeship and Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris for the Great Falls vacancy.

Both Watters and Morris are astute jurists with long records of excellent public service. We have previously endorsed their appointments to the federal bench and do so again today.

Their Senate confirmation hearing indicated no opposition to their nominations. Morris and Watters were questioned along with nominees for U.S. District Courts in Connecticut and New Hampshire. The questioning of all four took a total of 15 minutes.

Even obviously excellent candidates with no political baggage, such as Morris and Watters, can still be delayed by Senate gridlock.

As of this month, 10 percent of the nation’s 667 U.S. District judgeships are vacant, according the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. There were 65 district court vacancies at the beginning of July and four more expected by month’s end. Twenty-three nominations for District Court are pending before the U.S. Senate.

More emergencies

In a report released this month, the Brennan Center also found that:

 The average per-judge caseload in 2009-2012 was 13 percent higher than the average for the preceding four years.

 Judicial emergencies — a designation of districts with an acute need for judges — have been higher in 2010-2012 than at any other point since 2002.

At the hearing Wednesday, Baucus pointed out that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has designated the Montana vacancies as judicial emergencies. He asked the committee members to “work diligently and expediently to get these two exemplary nominees to the Senate floor for confirmation.”

There’s no good reason why Morris and Watters can’t be confirmed before the Senate takes summer vacation next month. While Congress takes a break, new cases will be filed in Montana, and justice will be delayed – unless the Senate acts quickly to confirm Watters and Morris.

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