October 4, 2002

Senate OKs 5 new U.S. judges for San Diego


WASHINGTON The Senate voted yesterday to approve new judgeships for San Diego's federal court, which handles one of the largest caseloads in the country.

"San Diego has the heaviest caseload," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor. "The (federal) bench has been close to becoming a real catastrophe. This bill brings relief."

President Bush is expected to sign the measure, setting the stage for five new judges to be added to the Southern District of California federal bench. There are eight permanent judges now.

San Diego judges handle an overwhelming caseload fueled by increasing numbers of immigration and drug-related cases stemming from San Diego's proximity to the border, according to federal judicial reports.

Reacting to the Senate's voice vote, Marilyn Huff, the chief San Diego federal judge, said, "We're very excited this happened and it's the right thing to do.

"Everybody knew we had a dramatic need for this, and it came down to bipartisan support," said Huff, who has lobbied for several years for as many as 10 more judgeships.

Each of the eight San Diego judges handled about 1,000 civil and
criminal cases last year, the highest volume in the country. Despite the criminal caseload, San Diego' federal courts haven't been awarded any new judgeships since 1990.

To get a handle on the cases, the San Diego court often sought outside assistance from retired jurists and judges assigned elsewhere, officials said.

Once Bush approves the judgeships, it would set in motion an application and appointment process that could take a year or more.

The bill also calls for new judgeships elsewhere in the nation,
including a new temporary judgeship for the Los Angeles federal court.

"We hope we can get the application process moving, the background checks and nominations, so we can have these positions filled by next year," Huff said.

The Senate action yesterday ended nearly a week of debate on the
measure, which authorized a broad array of programs for the Justice
Department, dealing with issues ranging from border security and
law-enforcement oversight to drug treatment and immigration reforms.

The legislation includes continuing a program that reimburses state and local governments for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants.

The White House has sought to eliminate the program, known as the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.

Last year, states and counties received $545 million in federal funds for the program, with California receiving the bulk of it 40 percent.

Although no money has been earmarked for the program this year, the Senate action may prompt negotiations with the White House to add funding, a spokesman for Feinstein said.

"The control of illegal immigration is a federal responsibility, but
more and more of this burden has been shifting to state and local
governments," Feinstein said.

Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.