Republicans in Congress are trying again to pull Arizona and other western states out of the clutches of "liberal" California judges who hold sway over the busiest federal appellate court in the country.
GOP lawmakers led by House judiciary chairman Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., launched a new push this month to split the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Arizona and the western U.S.
Judges for and against the split are scheduled to testify today before a Senate judiciary subcommittee.
The San Francisco-based appellate court has been attacked for decades by conservatives and leaders of rural states for decisions that have protected access to abortions, strengthened the power of environmental regulators and defended the rights of accused criminals. But those critics have failed for more than 30 years to divide the 9th Circuit.
So this time, Republicans are claiming the 9th Circuit has become an administrative nightmare because of California’s huge population and rapid growth in Arizona and Nevada. The numbers appear to back up their claims as the 9th Circuit now handles 23 percent of all federal appeals, and its cases take four months longer to complete than the national average.
"When you have a circuit that overcrowded and too large, you don’t have swift access to the courts," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "It takes too long for Arizonans to receive justice."
But the judicial administrator of the 9th Circuit says the court’s problems have been created by Congress, which has been reluctant to fill vacancies or add more judges. There are four vacancies at the moment, and a coalition of federal judges has recommended adding seven more positions.
Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder, based in Phoenix, added that the court has used modern technology to improve case management.
On the other hand, "Arizona would not be subject from decisions by liberal San Francisco judges, such as two decisions holding that it is unconstitutional to recite the Pledge of Allegiance," said Rep. Rick Renzi, who represents northern Arizona, via e-mail.
The plan, co-sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., would place Arizona and six other states in a new 12th Circuit with Phoenix as the headquarters, leaving California, Hawaii and the other Pacific Islands in the 9th.
Schroeder said the proposed split would increase California’s dominance in one circuit while maintaining geographic awkwardness in the other.
• Create two smaller, more manageable circuits.
• Separate Arizona from California’s overwhelming influence.
• New circuit would focus on nation’s fastest-growing states.
• Phoenix would be headquarters for new circuit.
• Work load, geographic spacing would be unevenly divided between two circuits.
• Arizona, California have close economic and cultural ties.
• Arizona couldn’t seek help from California judges with experience in immigration cases.
• Cost to build Phoenix headquarters could exceed $100 million