The presiding federal judge in Arizona wants permission to delay bringing felons to trial.
John Roll said Tuesday that Congress has essentially flooded the state with lots of new Border Patrol agents and added prosecutors to bring charges. The result, he told Capitol Media Services, is a record number of felony cases being filed.
But Roll said the state is stuck with the same 13 authorized judges it has had for years.
"We've reached a choke point," he said.
Roll said the situation is particularly acute in Southern Arizona, where there are just five judges assigned. In actuality, there are just four, with a vacancy waiting to be filled.
Roll said the seven judges left in Phoenix -- one just was named to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals -- already have their hands full and cannot help with the workload. And he said the space in the courthouse is so tight that even when they can get visiting judges, only one can be accommodated at any one time.
What Roll wants is a waiver from rules that now require cases to be brought to trial within 70 days after arraignment. His proposal is to lengthen that to 180 days.
That, he said, isn't the ultimate answer.
"It is a Band-Aid," he said. "We need judges."
But that power resides only with Congress. And Roll said that despite the rapid increase in cases being filed in Arizona -- and all along the Southwest border -- the political reality may make getting that additional help impossible.
Roll said members of Arizona's congressional delegation have been "very supportive" of getting additional judges.
"The problem is there are only five Southwest border (federal judicial) districts," he said, all falling within just four states. That is out of 94 federal districts nationwide.
"So you have 46 states that may think that the Southwest border is a drain on all the available resources," Roll said. "They're not as receptive to the idea that the judicial resources should go to the Southwest border."
Roll argued that the numbers should convince federal lawmakers otherwise.
Two years ago there were 3,023 felony cases filed in federal court in Arizona. That increased to 4,311 the next year and 5,219 just last year.
In just Tucson, felony filings went from 1,564 two years ago to 3,289 last year.
He said that is a natural outgrowth of the fact there are now more than 3,000 Border Patrol officers in the Tucson sector alone.
Roll also said that in January 2008, there were 33 prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tucson. Today, he said, there are 61, with five more in the process of being hired.
The good news out of all that, Roll said, is that 212,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended last year. While most are simply deported, there are a large number who are charged with felonies, either because they are smugglers or they reentered the country after being previously returned home.
"The addition of what sometimes seems to be an inexhaustible number of law enforcement agents and federal prosecutors in the Tucson division has now produced a tsunami of federal felony cases far beyond the management capacity of four active district judges," Roll wrote in his request for a delay in trials to Alex Kozinski, the chief judge of the 9th Circuit.
Roll's request for the trial delay originally went to the 9th Circuit in November. But it was denied after two judges said they wanted more input from prosecutors and defense lawyers.
At this point, he said, the issue is set to come up again next month.
Roll acknowledged that the more permanent solution of more judges, by itself, is only part of the answer.
He said while the federal courthouse in Tucson is only a decade old, "we are absolutely beyond full occupancy."
Roll said that if Congress does eventually approve additional judgeships it should also approve the resources necessary, including additional space.
The problems in Tucson federal court affect the Yuma district only indirectly.
Felony cases from that area are handled in federal court in Phoenix. But Roll said that court has its own caseload problems, though not quite as acute as in Tucson.