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Senate considers Zipps to replace slain Judge Roll

WASHINGTON – U.S. Magistrate Judge Jennifer Guerin Zipps faced a friendly Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday on her nomination to fill the seat of U.S. District Judge John Roll, who was killed in the Jan. 8 attack that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Roll’s seat is one of three vacant federal judgeships in Arizona, and experts say the court will need even more judges after those vacancies are filled to address a backlog of cases in the district.

“We desperately need more full-time judges to keep things rolling,” said Walter Nash, a trial lawyer who has practiced law in Arizona for 40 years.

He said that when he works outside of the district, other judges are “stunned” to hear how many cases Arizona courts are trying to work through.

The average Arizona federal judge handled 854 “actions” in 2010, compared to a national average of 566, according to the 2010 report by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. It said filings in Arizona rose 7.8 percent from 2009 to 2010 while the national increase was 2.9 percent during the same period.

Nash attributed the Arizona surge to massive numbers of immigration and drug cases in the district.

Giffords’ office wrote President Barack Obama in March and urged him to fill the vacancies, pointing out that Arizona ranked first in criminal case filings among courts in the 9th Circuit in 2009 and third in the nation. In 2010, felony filings in Arizona federal courts rose 21 percent, her office said.

“I wish that every member of this committee could attend her (Zipps’) court every work day where there is a minimum of 70 defendants, all addressed at one time,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Wednesday’s hearing.

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“It is a very unusual kind of judicial situation and she handles it with skill and efficiency and fairness,” he said.

McCain joined Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., at the hearing to support Zipps’ nomination. McCain said he would be “very appreciative of an expeditious and rapid confirmation of Judge Zipps because of the judicial emergency that exists.”

At the time of his death, Roll was preparing to declare a judicial emergency to give judges more time to process the heavy workload in the district. That emergency was subsequently declared by the new chief judge in the district.

The 1,100 cases Roll was handling at the time were divided among the other already-overburdened judges in the district, Giffords office said.

Arizona has 17 federal district judgeships, 13 in Phoenix and four in Tucson. Of the three vacant positions, Zipps had her confirmation hearing Wednesday and Rosemary Marquez has been nominated to fill a vacancy, but no hearing has been set by the Judiciary Committee. No one has yet been nominated to the third open seat.

Zipps, who faced few questions from the committee, testified that important characteristics for a judge are “conscientiousness, honesty and a respect for the law and the legal process.” She has been a magistrate judge in the Tucson branch of the district court since 2005 and served for 10 years before that in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson, according to her nomination documents.

All five nominees who had confirmation hearings Wednesday could get additional questions from committee members over the next week before their names are turned over for the vote.

Nash said there is still talk of a special additional allowance of five judges for the border states, but right now adding judges is more of a “politically driven issue than need alone.”

“It’s unfair to point the finger at any one sector,” said Nash. “Congress needs to authorize these new spots. That’s one of the things Roll was an ardent supporter of.”

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Cristina Rayas/Cronkite News Service

U.S. Magistrate Jennifer Guerin Zipps is sworn in before her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to replace slain U.S. District Judge John Roll in the federal court in Tucson.