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Updated May 14, 2014 - 3:32 pm

Senate to confirm 6 Arizona federal judges

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 included Diane Humetewa, who will likely be the first
Native American woman to serve on the federal bench. Humetewa, who was born and raised in the state, attended Arizona State University and taught law there.

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 occupied by an American Indian.

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