gavel.jpgA U.S. appeals court in San Francisco announced today that a judicial emergency has been declared in the federal courts in Arizona.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the rare emergency declaration stemmed from a combination of a heavy caseload, judicial vacancies and the death of Chief U.S. District Judge John Roll in a mass shooting in Tucson on Jan. 8.

The new chief federal judge in Arizona, Roslyn Silver, declared the emergency on Thursday after a special meeting of the circuit court’s Judicial Council in San Diego.

Arizona is one of nine western states in the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction.

The declaration allows the courts to extend U.S. Speedy Trial Act deadlines for bringing criminal defendants to trial.

The normal deadline is that a trial must begin within 70 days of an indictment or complaint, unless a defendant waives that requirement. The new time limit will be 180 days.

The emergency extension of deadlines will be in effect for 13 months, including one month authorized by Silver and an additional year authorized by the Judicial Council.

The 9th Circuit said the federal district of Arizona has the third-highest caseload of criminal cases in the nation, primarily driven by illegal immigration and drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Most of those cases are handled in the court’s Tucson division. As a result of the death of Judge Roll, who was based in Tucson, that division now has only three judges who each have a docket of 1,200 cases.

Arizona currently has a total of 13 authorized federal judgeships, but three of those positions are vacant. In addition, its caseload would justify Congress’ creation of five more federal judgeships, according to the 9th Circuit.

Chief 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski said he hopes the declaration will prompt action by Congress to establish more judgeships.

“The District Court in Arizona urgently needs additional resources,” Kozinski said.

Roll was one of six people killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was one of 13 injured in the shooting at a community meet-and-greet being held by Giffords.

The suspect in the case is 22-year-old Jared Loughner, who pleaded not guilty in federal court on Monday to charges including attempted assassination.

Roll had worked with Giffords in urging Congress to authorize more judges. He had also begun steps to set the emergency declaration in motion.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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