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Caseloads in border courts overwhelm magistrates

April 02, 2001|By JESSICA ROCHA, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Federal court caseloads in the Southwest are reaching crisis proportions, officials told a House subcommittee Thursday, and Southern California courts are the most burdened.

"Our criminal justice system along the Southwest border is at a crossroads," W. Royal Furgeson Jr., a West Texas federal judge, testified at a hearing of a judiciary subcommittee on crime.

"The border courts are beyond their capacity to handle their caseloads," Furgeson said. "Washington cannot increase the crackdown on illegal drugs and immigration along the Southwest border without more judges to allow these cases to be prosecuted."

While the entire Southwest border has a shortage of federal judges, Southern California's courts, which include Imperial and San Diego counties, are the most stressed, court officials said.


Southern California's judges handled an average of 492 criminal cases in 2000, while the national average was 75. The Southwest border region's average was 324, not counting civil cases.

"We are doing double the work of other courts," said Southern California District Chief Judge Marilyn Huff. "It hurts the litigants, the people. It's not fair to the people who come before us."

Huff's district has just eight active court judges and three senior judges with lighter workloads, including one who does not take new cases, she said.

In January, legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress to provide 18 more judges for the region, eight of whom would go to Southern California.

While four new judgeships were created in the Southwest last year, none was in Southern California.

"It was like a judicial filibuster," said Roberta Sistos, a civil attorney in San Diego and member of the executive board of the Hispanic National Bar Association. Sistos said Republicans in the House were reluctant to approve judicial nominees offered by former President Clinton.

Since last year, two of Southern California's senior judges died, one has become inactive, and two are not taking new cases.

To try to alleviate the immediate problem, Huff has been "importing" volunteer judges from around the country. The volunteers typically stay for a couple of months. She is expecting 23 this year.

The federal government pays for transportation, hotel, meals, staff and salaries for the judges, which Huff said is more expensive than authorizing the state to hire more district judges.

The state courts also help with the federal caseload. Huff said that around 2,000 federal cases were referred to state courts for disposition.

Civil cases also are backlogged. The federal system is not divided into civil and criminal courts, and criminal cases take precedence.

In 2000, a civil case typically took 25 months to go to trial in Southern California, compared with 20 months nationally.

In the meantime, Sistos said, evidence may get misplaced and witnesses may move away, forget about the case or in some cases, die.

"It adversely affects people's rights," Sistos said.

The problem has existed since 1994, with the beginning of the Southwest Border Initiative of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Increased border patrols led to a decrease in crime and more drug trafficking arrests, but the program provided no additional funding for patrol officers, interpreters, public defenders or judges.

The result, said Gregory Vega, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, is that a smaller percentage of cases have been brought to court. While many cases are sent to state court, some are the subject of plea agreements and many are dismissed.

"(The border initiative) has taken its toll on the back end infrastructure of the system," Vega said.

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