Rhode Island's top federal judge says a four-year judicial vacancy left open amid partisan bickering in the U.S. Senate has led her court to take the unusual step of reassigning more than two dozen civil cases to judges in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
In an interview, Chief Judge Mary M. Lisi told The Associated Press the vacancy has left her and Rhode Island's other federal judge, William E. Smith, with a growing caseload that has begun to reach a critical mass.
The vacancy "has had a major impact on the business of the court," Lisi said. "We have an increasing caseload being handled by only two people where three judges are authorized."
Lisi said her primary reason for moving the cases was that she worried a lag in rendering decisions at key points in the litigation would leave plaintiffs and defendants in the lurch. She said she chose to reassign cases with important motions pending.
"Our job is to resolve cases and to do so in as timely and efficient a manner as we can. And when our ability to do so is hampered, I don't think that's good for any participants in the process," she said.
A third judge, Ronald R. Lagueux, who is a senior judge, has volunteered to help to ease the burden on Lisi and Smith.
The case reassignment is one example of a real effect _ and a real cost, to traveling litigants, lawyers and judges _ of the often-snarled judicial appointment process whose unknotting U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts called for in December.
"Each political party has found it easy to turn on a dime from decrying to defending the blocking of judicial nominations, depending on their changing political fortunes," Roberts wrote in his 2010 report on the federal judiciary. "There remains ... an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem."
Twenty-five of the Rhode Island civil lawsuits were reassigned to New Hampshire and two to Massachusetts in late January, about two weeks after President Barack Obama nominated Jack McConnell, a Rhode Island trial attorney, to the state's vacant judgeship for the third time. The nomination has faced resistance from some Senate Republicans and staunch opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber claims McConnell's track record, which includes suing former lead paint companies, evinces a bias against business defendants.
McConnell declined to comment on his nomination.
Rhode Island's U.S. senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse _ both Democrats _ told the AP on Monday they are cautiously optimistic that McConnell's nomination, which has previously stalled at the committee level, will move to the Senate floor this session.
"Both Senator Reed and I are working hard to get Jack McConnell the up-or-down vote that all nominees deserves _ and that he deserves," said Whitehouse, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The signals (from Senate Republicans) are good so far, but we have no guarantees."
Reed said the burden that prolonged vacancies place on federal courts is beginning to weigh on Judiciary Committee Republicans, who he said appear increasingly willing to advance Obama's nominees out of committee.
In November 2007 _ almost a year after the vacancy opened _ then-President George W. Bush nominated Lincoln Almond, a federal magistrate judge in Rhode Island. His candidacy fizzled after a lukewarm reception from Reed and Whitehouse.
Normally, cases are assigned to judges elsewhere, who follow the rules of the originating court, only when all judges in a given district recuse themselves. Lisi says the current situation is unique in recent state history.
Other districts facing stalled appointments have not yet taken similar steps.
However, Peter Oppeneer, court clerk for the Western District of Wisconsin, said that court might need to look to other districts for help if a vacancy there takes a long time to fill. Some Senate Republicans have opposed Obama's nominee to that judgeship, Louis Butler.
The Rhode Island reassignment has generated some confusion and consternation among state lawyers.
George Babcock, who's suing on behalf of more than a dozen clients in a foreclosures case transferred to New Hampshire, says the move is upsetting to some of his clients and potentially expensive. He says the court has told him the case, if it goes to trial, will be heard in Concord, N.H.
"I want to work on my cases in my office, not in a Motel 6," Babcock said. "And with all these clients, I'm going to have to rent a whole wing at the Motel 6."
Other lawyers with reassigned cases say New Hampshire judges have offered to travel to Providence. It is ultimately up to each individual judge to decide where the case should be heard, according to David DiMarzio, clerk for federal court in Rhode Island.
There are just over 2,500 civil cases and 205 criminal cases pending in Rhode Island, according to court figures. Of the civil cases, over 1,600 are part of multi-district litigation that Lisi says the court accepted before realizing it would be faced with an extended vacancy.
For now, Lisi says, she does not plan to transfer more cases to other districts.