Report: Vacant Texas federal judgeships languish

WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ten federal judgeships have sat vacant in Texas for an average of nearly two years, creating a backlog of more than 12,000 cases, according to a report by two progressive advocacy groups that blame the problem on the state’s U.S. senators.

The report, given to The Associated Press ahead of its release Wednesday, says Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz have deliberately delayed potential nominees by President Barack Obama. Both senators, however, say Obama hasn’t moved fast enough with his nominees.

The report notes that only six judges have been appointed to U.S. District Court vacancies in Texas under Obama — and none since Cruz took office in January 2013. By contrast, 17 such vacancies had been filled by this point in Republican President George W. Bush’s second term, when Cornyn and Cruz’s predecessor, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, were in office.

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“Senators Cornyn and Cruz have allowed politics to cloud important needs to have judges to fill our federal courts,” said Phillip Martin, deputy director of Austin-based Progress Texas, which compiled the report with the Center for American Progress in Washington.

The life-long federal court appointments are made by the White House but confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

The report details three vacancies on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and seven in the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western Districts of Texas. The 5th Circuit is based in New Orleans but three of its vacancies are designated Texas seats, and at least one is close to being filled.

Plus, upcoming retirements mean that 13 Texas-based federal judgeships could be vacant by March 2015. That potential problem is particularly worrisome for federal courts near the U.S.-Mexico border, like those in the Western and Southern Districts of Texas, which have some of the nation’s heaviest caseloads.

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The longest vacancy is in Texas’ Western District, where Judge W. Royal Furgeson Jr. entered semi-retirement in November 2008. His slot remains open five years and four months later. That has required Senior U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra to travel from Honolulu to San Antonio — on the government’s dime — to hear cases.

A Southern District Court based in Corpus Christi has had a vacancy for nearly three years. The shortest-lived opening on the report’s list is about nine months in the Northern District.

Cornyn and Cruz counter that Obama hasn’t quickly nominated candidates to fill the vacancies. However, the White House doesn’t push nominees without the support of the home-state senators and waits for them to make suggestions, as mandated by Senate tradition.

Since creating the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee to vet potential Texas nominees last April, Cornyn’s office says it and Cruz have suggested at least three nominees to the White House for the seven district-court vacancies. More names are expected soon.

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“Through the bipartisan FJEC, Sen. Cornyn has submitted several well qualified nominees to the White House for consideration,” Cornyn spokeswoman Kate Martin said.

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz, said her boss has been working closely with Cornyn and that “both of our offices have been in regular contact and working in good faith with the White House.”

One of the 5th Circuit openings noted in the report as being vacant for more than two years is close to being filled. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which includes Cornyn and Cruz, last week approved Obama’s nomination of Gregg Costa, currently a Southern District judge based in Galveston.

His nomination now only needs full Senate approval — though a vote hasn’t been scheduled by the chamber’s Democratic leadership. And the other nine openings on Texas’ federal benches don’t even have nominees.

There are 86 federal judicial vacancies nationwide and 39 lack nominees — meaning Texas’ account for nearly a quarter of all vacancies without nominees, according to data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

And if approved, Costa’s move to the 5th Circuit would create a new vacancy on Texas’ Southern District’s bench — and become one of the 13 possible future openings Wednesday’s report warns may be a reality by next year.

“Sens. Cornyn and Cruz must put their constituents above political gamesmanship,” the report says, “and end their unwavering obstruction of the federal judicial nomination process.”