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Chief justice urges action on court vacancies

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chief Justice Roberts urges the Senate to fill judicial vacancies
  • 19 of President Obama's judicial nominees have not received Senate floor votes
  • Roberts warns that courts are taking on an increased workload without an increased budget

Washington (CNN) -- Chief Justice John Roberts urged the Senate in his annual year-end report Friday to move swiftly in filling vacant federal judgeships, calling it a "persistent problem" requiring urgent attention.

"Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes," wrote Roberts. "This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts."

Roberts made his remarks in a 12-page summary of the federal courts, part of his role as head of the entire federal judiciary.

The 55-year-old chief justice noted an "urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem" of unfilled vacancies.

The Senate will remain under Democratic control in the new Congress, but Republicans made significant gains in November which could make confirmations of President Barack Obama's pending judicial nominees more difficult.

The Senate is responsible for confirming presidential appointees to the bench, normally after holding committee hearings.

Nineteen of Obama's nominees have not received floor votes, but an equal number were confirmed to the bench during the recent lame duck session of Congress. Senate Democrats and their liberal allies urged Republicans to hold up-or-down votes for these 19 remaining bench vacancies, 13 of which have been designated "judicial emergencies" by the courts because of the heavy pending caseload awaiting whoever fills the seat.

"America's system of justice, administered by the courts, will suffer with the refusal to hold votes on these nominations," said Doug Kendall, president of the progressive Constitutional Accountability Center. "The Senate must do better when it reconvenes in January."

Roberts also revisited a theme he has emphasized in each of his six year-end reports since taking over as chief justice in 2005-- funding the judiciary.

While noting the shaky economy has forced budgetary belt-tightening across the federal government, Roberts again warned Congress that the courts were being asked to tackle a rising caseload without increased resources.

"We will strive to reduce costs where possible," he said. "But we ask in return that our coordinate branches of government continue to provide the financial resources that the courts must have to carry out their vital mission."

Roberts outlined several steps the courts are taking to reduce their operating budgets and streamline operations. Only about two-tenths of one percent of the federal budget goes to the judicial branch of government, which includes district, appeals, and bankruptcy courts, along with the Supreme Court and other probation, pretrial and administrative services.

One area the chief justice did not address specifically was judicial salaries. In past year-end reports, Roberts has lamented being "tired" of urging lawmakers to live up to their pledge to raise judges' pay. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have promised to make judicial pay a priority in the next Congress.

The report found the federal judiciary had a growing caseload this year, especially bankruptcy petitions, which rose 14% to 1.6 million. The Supreme Court's workload jumped to 8,159 filings in the 2009-10 term.

Criminal case filings over the past year rose slightly to 78,428, with the number of defendants topping 100,000 for the first time ever. Most of those cases involved immigration violations, which jumped 9% from the year before to over 28,000.

Federal fraud cases rose 12% to over 9,370. One area of decline was drug offenses, which decreased 5% to just under 16,000.

 
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