A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday could help Texas’ federal court system begin tunneling out of a years-long logjam created as several benches in the state have sat vacant for years.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet to consider five Obama administration nominees for federal district court seats, including three in the Northern District of Texas, one in the Western District of Texas and one in the Eastern District of Texas.
But even the most optimistic court observers and legal scholars note that — if eventually confirmed by the upper chamber — the five judges won’t completely solve a shortage they say has been exacerbated by Texas’ Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. Critics argue that the senators have played politics with the seats and done little to encourage the full Senate to approve judges, leading some vacancies to linger for years.
In all, there are 10 federal court vacancies in Texas that the federal government considers “emergencies” based on the backlog of civil and criminal cases pending before the courts. There are also two empty seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which hears appeals from Texas.
“Texans deserve a fully functioning judiciary. It is unacceptable for Texas to be served by an understaffed court and for the judiciary branch to be drained of judges nationwide,” Lisa Blue, a Dallas-based trial lawyer and past president of the American Association for Justice, wrote in an opinion piece for the Dallas Morning News last week. “It is unacceptable for our senators to be complacent. Senators, when you return to D.C. on September 6, please just do your job.”
Progress Texas, a progressive Austin-based think tank, thinks Cruz is more at fault than Cornyn because the junior senator’s tenure in Washington has been marked by more discord than when his predecessor served.
“When (former U.S. Sen.) Kay Bailey Hutchison was there, you had movement. And you had some sort of bipartisan cooperation,” said Ed Espinoza, Progress Texas’ executive director. “And we haven’t seen any of that since Cruz came in.”
Cruz’s team dismissed the criticism and said it was expected of a liberal group that didn’t understand the process.
“Texans deserve a fully functioning judiciary. It is unacceptable for Texas to be served by an understaffed court and for the judiciary branch to be drained of judges nationwide.”— Lisa Blue, past president of the American Association for Justice
“It’s not surprising that liberal progressives would want to misconstrue the truth about Sen. Cruz and Sen. Cornyn’s bipartisan efforts to fill Texas judicial vacancies, and their timing is suspect considering that the candidates to fill these vacancies will be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee [Wednesday],” Cruz aide Phil Novack said in an email. “The truth is Cruz and Cornyn named members to a bipartisan panel — the Federal Judicial Evaluation Committee — who have long been working to identify and vet the qualified candidates, a process that will be culminated in the coming days.”
Espinoza said despite the current gridlock, Wednesday’s hearing, which Cornyn will chair, means there is at least some hope the vacancies will get filled.
“I think that Cornyn is doing the right thing and we can only be optimistic and we hope they can see this through,” he said.
Glenn Sugameli, an environmental attorney and activist who tracks judicial nominations, said the Eastern District of Texas demonstrates the real-time damage the vacancies cause. The district is the preferred venue for patent litigation, which has been held up during the current crisis.
“When there are not enough judges, cases get delayed, people die, people forget things, documents are lost, all sorts of things happen,” he said. “That means that even if and when you do get to a case, it may be too late to even get justice. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
The nominees to serve in the Northern District include U.S. Magistrate Judge Irma Carrillo Ramirez, U.S. Magistrate Judge E. Scott Frost and James Wesley Hendrix, an assistant U.S. attorney and the Chief of the Appellate Division for the district. U.S. Magistrate Judge Walter David Counts III will be considered for the Western District of Texas, and Karen Gren Scholer, a principal in the law firm of Carter Scholer Arnett Hamada & Mockler, PLLC, will be considered for the vacancy in the Eastern District of Texas.
Their biographies can be found here on The White House’s news release from March.