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For the last half of the 1990s, U.S. District Judge George P. Kazen of Laredo, Texas was like a drowning man. With wave after wave of drug and immigration cases crashing over him, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas and Laredo’s longtime lone federal jurist did his best to keep his head above water and keep up with the ever-increasing criminal docket created by a 1995 federal initiative. Without much in the way of extra judicial resources to back up the project, federal officials sent hundreds of additional federal agents to Texas’ southern border as part of the Southwest Border Initiative to shut off the flow of illegal drugs and immigrants into the country. And more agents mean more cases, several border judges say. Last year, Congress finally decided to throw Kazen a lifeline by approving Keith P. Ellison to sit on a new bench in Laredo. And what a difference some help makes. Once a perennial contender on Texas Lawyer‘s annual Slowpoke Report of U.S. district court judges in Texas with the most motions pending more than six months, Kazen has one of the clearer federal dockets in the state, with only one motion pending more than six months as of Sept. 30, 2000. In the 1996 Slowpoke Report, he had 46 motions pending more than six months. The Civil Justice Reform Act of 1990 requires U.S. district judges to file reports annually with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on pending motions and cases — reports many federal judges dread. But while such reports point out the slowest federal jurists in a given jurisdiction, they also show which judges may need help. With an additional judge, Kazen hears civil motions promptly — an action that was once considered a luxury because the crush of criminal cases took priority, as mandated by the Speedy Trial Act, he says. “That did it,” Kazen says of Ellison’s help after taking the bench in August 1999. “Since we’re both working the docket, we’re more attentive to the civil docket. Now we’re working on it more. We’ve added a second magistrate and that will help also.” Just in time, Kazen says, as the Laredo division received 1,000 new cases in 1999 and more than 1,200 so far this year. “After the many years of [Kazen] being the only federal presence here, it’s been an enormous opportunity for me,” says Ellison, who left a Houston solo practice behind to take the bench. “I hope I’ve been of help to him.” Interestingly, judges along the Texas border showed marked improvement in taking care of business despite the increase in criminal filings — even in regions that did not benefit from a new bench. The slowest judge in Texas resides far away from the border and its problems. U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes of Houston had 60 motions pending for longer than six months. Hughes did not return two calls for comment. Interviewed two years ago, Hughes noted that he handles a large caseload and moves his cases efficiently. Some Houston lawyers agree. “I think Judge Hughes is one of the best judges we have,” says Houston criminal defense lawyer Stanley Schneider, who has appeared before Hughes. Following Hughes in Houston is U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon, who had 30 motions pending for longer than six months. A clerk in Harmon’s court says the judge does not speak with reporters. SOUTHERN AND WESTERN DISTRICTS No border judge had more than eight motions pending for longer than six months, according to the Slowpoke Report. Part of the reason may be a program initiated last year by Carolyn Dineen King, chief judge of the 5th Circuit, who began dispatching retired and active Louisiana district judges to help with border dockets from Laredo to Pecos to El Paso. During an 18-month period beginning in 1999, 11 of the judges — whom Kazen dubbed “The Louisiana Posse” — spent 473 hours in border courts and conducted 111 trials. “It’s created a marvelous sense of this being one circuit,” King says. “And there’s been a great sense of willingness to help. It’s been a very good thing.” In the Western District, one of the busiest criminal districts in the nation, 10 judges were responsible for about 1,000 criminal cases each. Add another 60 cases a month that state prosecutors refused to take because of lack of compensation from federal officials, and you had the makings of a rough year, says Bill Blagg, U.S. attorney for the Western District. Yet El Paso federal judges Harry Lee Hudspeth and David Briones held their own. Hudspeth had eight motions (the most in the district among active judges) pending for longer than six months. That’s down from last year’s 24 motions pending for more than six months. Hudspeth did not return two phone calls seeking comment. Briones had nothing pending according to the report, the same as the previous year. “It’s a tribute to the courts working hard,” Blagg says. “I sometimes wonder if there’s a limit to all of this.” Most of the criminal cases move fast, requiring plea hearings and little else, prosecutors say. But toss in a multiweek, multidefendant criminal trial and the docket can get ugly for a judge, one border lawyer says. “Judge Briones was in trial for 10 weeks” this year, says Debra Kanof, chief of major crimes in the El Paso Division of the Office of the U.S. Attorney. “It’s an extremely significant statistic that he didn’t have motions pending in light of how tied up he was.” Briones says because El Paso’s civil docket isn’t that heavy it’s pretty easy for him to keep up with pending civil motions thanks to a simple system he uses. “My instructions to my clerks are with respect to all motions that are ready to be ruled on, they are to be placed on a table near my desk,” Briones says. “I know exactly what I have pending.” THE NORTHERN DISTRICT Leading the list among Northern District judges with motions pending more than six months is U.S. District Judge Sam A. Lindsay of Dallas with 53. But Lindsay is still a relatively new judge and a learning curve is to be expected, two Dallas lawyers say. After taking the bench in 1998, other judges in the district passed off older cases to Lindsay, enough that in the 1999 Slowpoke Report, he had 172 motions pending longer than six months. He’s worked through more than half of those motions, all while taking in new cases, Lindsay says. “I’m still working through that,” Lindsay says. “I just got finished with a case that was four years old. Significant progress has been made and will continue to be made.” U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn, also of Dallas, had 29 motions pending more than six months. Lynn, who took the bench earlier this year, was handed older cases too, but not as many as Lindsay received when he took the bench, according to Jerry Buchmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District. New judges don’t start out slowly — when they take the bench, they are given a docket that’s “a picture” of that of other judges, says Buchmeyer. “We were just in much better shape when Barbara came on,” Buchmeyer says. “She’s still got at a few dogs, but it’s a little bit lower than when Sam came on.” Lynn says Lindsay did not pass off his oldest cases to her. “I would guess that I had 150 to 200 motions that were over six months old when I took the bench,” says Lynn, who was happy with her statistics at the end of the reporting period. “I felt like I prioritized the best that I could,” Lynn says. And Lynn doesn’t buy into the reasoning that says docket statistics show that new judges need time to adjust to their positions. “That’s not an explanation for where I am,” Lynn says. “We’ve all been working very, very hard. I wouldn’t put an explanation for why I didn’t do better.” THE EASTERN DISTRICT Occasionally, a judge whose numbers are traditionally good gets behind. This year, that happened to U.S. District Judge Howell Cobb of Beaumont. In 2000, he had 27 motions pending for more than six months. “Any shortcomings in this court are my responsibility and no one else’s,” Cobb says. “But I’m trying the best I can.” There were three reasons motions stacked up in his court, Cobb says: He had a six-week trial late last year; Beaumont division judges’ caseloads went up when Senior U.S. District Judge Joe J. Fisher, who kept an active docket, passed away; and, for the first time in three years, Cobb took a vacation. Leading the district with the most motions pending for more than six months was Richard A. Schell, chief judge of the Eastern District, with 42. He has a one-word explanation for the backlog: Norplant. As presiding judge in the national multidistrict litigation involving the Norplant contraceptive, he oversees hundreds of three-year-old cases. “All I can say is I’m working on it,” Schell says. “I don’t like having six-month-old motions any more than any other judge.” Out of those pending motions, only four are related to the Norplant litigation. The rest are from a variety of litigation, Schell says. “There’s just not enough time to keep up with them as I’d like to,” Schell says. “I think I’ll eventually catch up, and I’m working toward that goal.” In Texarkana, U.S. District Judge David Folsom is in a similar situation. A well-respected judge, he presides over the state’s suit against Big Tobacco and a three-year-old mass tort case against the manufacturer of a pacemaker. The two suits sucked up much of his time. Folsom had 18 motions pending for longer than six months — two of those he disposed of just after the Oct. 15 reporting deadline. “I always like it to be zero,” Folsom says of the report. “But I wasn’t too unhappy.” Most U.S. magistrate judges had no motions or cases pending for lengthy periods of time, according to the Slowpoke Report. And that’s how it should be, says U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul D. Stickney of Dallas. Stickney was the only magistrate in the Northern District with any motions pending more than six months, and all three of them were from death penalty cases — justifiable considering the subject matter, he says. “Quite frankly we don’t want to have those things sitting around long,” Stickney says of motions. “Where our role is important is that parties need quick, decisive rulings on their cases so they can progress with their litigation.” Federal judges with most motions pending over six months: Lynn N. Hughes — 60 Sam A. Lindsay — 53 Richard A. Schell* — 42 Melinda Harmon — 30 Barbara M.G Lynn — 29 Howell Cobb — 27 Robert B. Maloney** — 26 Samuel B. Kent — 20 Filemon B. Vela** — 20 David Folsom — 18 * chief judge ** senior judge Note: Totals are as of Sept. 30, 2000. Source: 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

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