PHOENIX - The U.S. Senate was poised Wednesday to begin confirming six judges to federal District Court in Arizona, injecting a dose of much-needed relief.
The overburdened court remains one of the busiest in the country, having declared a judicial emergency in 2011.
The judicial nominees include Diane Humetewa, who will likely be the first Native American woman to serve on the federal bench.
Whitney Cunningham, State Bar of Arizona president, said federal court judges in Arizona face a caseload that is 20 percent higher than the national average.
The six bench seats that have sat vacant have led to relying on judges who are retired or visiting from other states. The latter has led to trouble for some because judges from out of state aren't always familiar with Arizona laws, Cunningham said.
"We want our own judges who are members of Arizona's bar and know our laws and know our jurisprudence. This is a great day for us. We get our judges back," Cunningham said.
According to the U.S. District Court website, then Chief District Judge Rosalyn Silver declared a judicial emergency in 2011 to temporarily suspend the time limit imposed on bringing defendants to trial. The Speedy Trial Act mandates that a federal criminal trial begin within 70 days after a criminal complaint or indictment is filed. A judicial emergency can extend that deadline to a maximum of 180 days.
At the time, Silver said the suspension was needed because of a heavy caseload, a lack of adequate resources and the death of Chief Judge John Roll.
Roll was among six people killed Jan. 8, 2011, in a shooting outside a Tucson supermarket that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and several others. Before he died, Roll had begun the process of pronouncing a judicial emergency.
Arizona has the third-highest criminal caseload out of 94 federal trial courts in the U.S., according to the federal courts. Officials attribute the rise in trials to cases of drug smuggling and illegal immigration at the Arizona-Mexico border.
Meanwhile, the American Indian community has been monitoring the nomination of Humetewa, a former U.S. Attorney and appellate court judge to the Hopi Nation. While other ethnic groups and women have made strides in reaching the federal bench, there has never been an American Indian appointed to the Supreme Court or the federal appellate bench. Out of the nation's more than 860 federal judgeships, not one is currently occupied by an American Indian.