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Declaration promises relief for court reeling from judge’s death

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TUCSON – Federal judges in Arizona – and particularly in this city – were overburdened even before Chief U.S. District Judge John M. Roll died with five others in the shooting that severely wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

“We have an incredibly high criminal caseload,” said U.S. District Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson, who has nearly 700 pending cases in addition to the number of Roll’s cases she will receive.

The three remaining judges here are grappling with the large number of cases involving those accused of crossing the border illegally as well as drug cases, Jorgenson said.

A judicial emergency declared this week by Roslyn O. Silver, the new chief judge in the District of Arizona, is intended to provide some relief. As of Jan. 20, courts will have 180 days _ up from 70 days _ to bring defendants to trial after an indictment or complaint is filed.

Prior to his death, Roll had been working toward making such a declaration.

“Hopefully this declaration will draw attention to the Arizona situation and the administration and Congress will be prompted to action,” Dave Madden, the public information officer for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Arizona.

The declaration will remain in effect for 13 months.

Weeks before this month’s shootings, Giffords and U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, both Democrats, wrote a letter to the Chief Judge Alex Kozinksi of the 9th Circuit asking for a declaration.

“The District of Arizona is simply overworked and understaffed,” the letter read. “Our courts are congested with an all-time high felony caseload, mounting backlogs, and the workload continues to grow.”

Roll attended Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event to thank her for writing the letter. He had approximately 1,000 cases pending at the time of his death.

In fiscal 2010 the District of Arizona saw a 21 percent increase in case filings. Much of that is due to Operation Streamline, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security initiative to prosecute undocumented immigrants caught trying to cross the border.

Tucson has the largest and most porous section of the U.S.-Mexico border. Last year Border Patrol apprehended more than 200,000 people and seized more than 1 million pounds of marijuana.

The District of Arizona has the third-highest criminal caseload in the nation and the highest in the 9th Circuit, which includes federal districts in California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Hawaii and Alaska.

Just three weeks into the year the Tucson federal court has already been assigned 269 criminal cases, according to a memo sent by Chuck Evans, operations manager of the U.S. District Court.

“The District Court in Arizona urgently needs additional resources,” Kozinski, the 9th Circuit’s chief judge, said Tuesday in a news release. “Judicial vacancies need to be filled and new judgeships should be given strong consideration. There is also a need for more court staff and facilities.”

As the cases continue to mount, the state is forced to house an increasing number of people in its already overburdened detention centers, prisons and jails, said Heather Williams, a first assistant federal public defender in Tucson. This is especially troublesome in cases where the defendant is likely to receive probation or a sentence of time served, which is very common in Streamline cases, she added.

“If a client is looking at a case where they could potentially get probation or time served, they are already bumping up against the usual time it takes to resolve cases,” Williams said.