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Hoping the political winds are favorable, the Judicial Conference of the United States announced Tuesday that it will seek an omnibus judgeship bill that will buttress the federal courts with 57 new jurists. Eleven of the judges would be slated for the circuit courts, including seven for the Ninth Circuit U.S. Courts of Appeals. The last time the number of circuit judges was increased was 1990, and court officials say new judgeships are needed to meet the demands of a workload that is increasingly heavy– particularly with immigration cases. “I’m optimistic that the stars are lined up right,” said Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts spokesman David Sellers, pointing out that the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and White House are all controlled by the same party. For the Ninth Circuit, however, new judgeships are likely to renew calls to split the circuit, the nation’s largest. Two judgeships would also be slated for the Northern District of California, which currently has 14 judgeships. With the heaviest caseload in the country, new judges couldn’t come fast enough for the Ninth Circuit. While stopping short of complaining, judges spare no adjective when describing the amount of cases they hear. “I can tell you as a matter of workload, it’s crushing,” said Judge Barry Silverman. Silverman said he works “every single weekend. And I think most [judges] do.” He said it’s not uncommon for judges to discuss cases via e-mail on a Saturday or Sunday. But, he added, “As Hyman Roth said in ‘Godfather II’: ‘This is the life we have chosen.’” “I think we’ve been working at full capacity for quite a while now, and it’s just a matter of keeping up,” said Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain. The concern among judges is that there is a cost to having the highest caseload in the country the judges cannot dedicate the time they want to the cases they have. “We’re beginning to wonder whether we can give enough attention to the cases that are there,” O’Scannlain said. Said Silverman: “There’s only 24 hours in a day.” The Catch-22 is that with additional help comes additional pressure to break up the circuit. With 28 active judges and several senior judges who continue to hear cases, the Ninth Circuit is easily the largest appellate court in the country. Adding five additional permanent and two more temporary judges, as requested, would give the court 35 active judges, or about twice the number of judges in the Fifth Circuit, the next largest court. Two-thirds of the circuit’s new filings now come from California’s four district courts. “There probably will be those who will begin to look more seriously at what are the outer limits of court size,” said O’Scannlain, who has testified that the court should be broken up. The Ninth Circuit’s caseload is growing dramatically. From calendar year 2000 through 2002, filings jumped more than 25 percent, according to numbers provided by the court. Most of the jump appears to come from immigration cases, following a Justice Department streamlining of its Board of Immigration Appeals process. In certain categories of cases, single members of the BIA — rather than panels — are now allowed to affirm the decisions of immigration judges without issuing another opinion. Those cases are appealed directly to the Ninth Circuit and have flooded the docket. Court staff try to manage the influx by grouping similar cases together before they present them to the judges for consideration, but the impact is still evident. “I was on screening last week, and there seem to be quite an increasing number,” O’Scannlain said. Cases terminated by the BIA jumped 49 percent from fiscal year 2000 to 2001. The Executive Office for Immigration Review attributes the bump to the streamlining procedures, and when numbers for 2002 are released, they could spike even further. Attorney General John Ashcroft has said he wants the immigration courts to clear a massive backlog by this month. To speed the process, in September the Justice Department expanded the number of cases eligible for streamlined review. A study by the Los Angeles Times found that by October 2002, immigration judges were denying appeals at an 86 percent rate — 30 percent higher than the previous year, a factor that likely adds to the number of appeals. A request for new judgeships is a staple of the annual Judicial Conference meetings, but it usually falls on deaf ears. AOC spokesman Sellers said bills have traditionally been passed every six years or so, but it’s been 13 years since the last one. The Ninth Circuit hasn’t added any judges since 1984. “We’re way overdue for an omnibus judgeship bill,” Sellers said. The judges have one important ally in Ashcroft. Sellers said Ashcroft was at the conference and was supportive of the request. Sellers hopes it happens soon. “There are record workloads everywhere,” he said. Related chart: A Growing Caseload

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