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Our Opinion: A big hole

January 16, 2001

That Superior Court Judge Roger Benitez would give up his long-sought judgeship to take a job on the federal bench after only three years of a six-year term was a bit surprising.

We are sure Benitez, who mostly appeared to have done a good job as a Superior Court judge, had his reasons for the switch, and we are sure they are good ones. And certainly a good jurist was needed to fill the federal slot. Still, his departure leaves a big hole in a court system already impacted with cases, a situation terribly exacerbated by court cases stemming from our two state prisons here.

We hope Gov. Gray Davis, who has never seemed particularly attuned to Imperial County's affairs or needs (we're still awaiting, as his years pass as governor, for his first visit to our county), appoints a new judge soon. There are plenty of qualified attorneys here who would make wonderful Superior Court judges, although many say, only half-jokingly, they couldn't afford the pay cut.

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Locals involved in the process say the appointment could come quickly or could take a long time. It all depends on Davis. And with Davis being the consummate politician always attuned to where the most votes are combined with the fact that both our state representatives are Republicans, we can hope for quick action but it might be futile.

Our assemblyman, Dave Kelley, generally is considered a likable Republican by Democrats and one with whom they can work. Maybe Kelley can help expedite matters.

Actually, we hope anyone with any pull with Davis will prod him to act quickly on the appointment before a big legal traffic jam starts building in Imperial County. When you have only nine Superior Court judges, as Imperial County is allotted, one not being there can affect the system greatly.

While we are on the subject of Benitez's move, we want to laud Joseph Schmitt, the man he is replacing, for his more than a quarter century of devotion from the federal bench. Schmitt, in dealing with a federal docket that often focused on drug-importation cases in recent years, handled his thankless caseload with wisdom and a fair hand.

Someone may be taking the place of Joe Schmitt, who is retiring, but there really is no replacing Joe Schmitt.

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