A message from the judge killed in Tucson

By Conor Williams
Thursday, January 13, 2011;

John Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona and one of the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tucson, was by all accounts a remarkable man. Sen. John McCain, who recommended Roll for his position, called him "a man of great qualities and character." Chief Justice John Roberts remembered him as "a wise jurist who selflessly served Arizona and the nation with great distinction." And President Obama noted that "his colleagues described him as the hardest-working judge within the 9th Circuit."

Now that his spot on the bench is empty, the best tribute to Roll would be to fill it quickly - along with all the other empty federal judgeships across the country - and to give the federal courts more of the resources they so desperately need.

It was Roll's concern for his overwhelmed court that had him talking to staffers for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords when a gunman started shooting, according to an FBI statement. Just days before he was killed, Roll warned that the judges in his district were "simply unable to absorb the enormous increase in felony cases being scheduled for trial. . . . We've reached a choke point."

Reinforced border security has a lot to do with that enormous increase. In 2008, 3,023 federal felony cases were filed in Arizona. In 2010, there were 5,219 cases - almost 2,700 of which were immigration-related.

Roll worried that President Obama's new border security measures would add to the burgeoning caseload. "If you have more agents in the field, they're going to make more apprehensions," he told the Associated Press in June. "We have to have more resources if they're going to bring us more cases." He called for more judges and more courtroom space.

It's true that immigration reform or decriminalization of marijuana or stricter gun control might relieve tension along the border. The trouble is, there's little consensus on these types of responses.

But whether or not you agree with the federal approach to border security, drugs or guns, Roll was right. The rule of law depends upon vigorous enforcement - otherwise laws become meaningless. It also depends upon the right to fair and speedy trials. That can't happen when a single judge faces nearly 1,000 cases a year.

The situation has been made worse by the sluggish pace of judicial confirmations. Arizona had already been coping with two federal court vacancies - Roll's death makes for an unfortunate third. Nationally, 90 federal judgeships sit empty, even after a lame-duck session deal to approve some of Obama's nominees. This means that more than 10 percent of the country's judgeships are vacant.

Chief Justice Roberts raised the issue in his year-end report and blamed congressional obstruction. "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," Roberts wrote. "This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts. Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads."

While delay tactics reached a new zenith in the 111th Congress, heel-dragging on judicial nominees is a long-standing Washington tradition. Democrats also slowed the process during recent Republican administrations. Recently, some Republicans have criticized Obama for being too slow in nominating judges. The problem is serious, whatever its causes.

It was a problem Roll faced every day. And so, it would be a fitting legacy if Obama and the Senate made staffing the federal judiciary a priority in this congressional session. They should put partisanship aside and quickly confirm Roll's replacement. They also should heed his warnings about the need for more judges and other resources. Roll lost his life trying to deliver the message that federal courts are in trouble. Now, it's up to Obama and Congress to rescue the courts.

Conor Williams won The Post's 2010 America's Next Great Pundit contest. His e-mail address is punditconor@gmail.com.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company