WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has lifted a block on five of six judicial nominees to the federal court in Arizona, where the American Bar Association has said vacancies are "dramatically worse" than in other states.
Flake on Monday filed the "blue slips" needed from home -- state senators before nominations can proceed, clearing the way for hearings that were delayed for months on many of the nominees -- and more than two years for one.
Fellow Arizona Sen. John McCain filed blue slips for the same five nominees last fall. Only James Soto, who was nominated by President Barack Obama in December, has not gotten blue slips from McCain or Flake.
Flake's office said in a statement Tuesday that the delay was justified because the senator wanted to take a "deliberate and thorough" look at the nominees to what are lifetime appointments. Whatever the reason, the announcement was welcomed by lawyers and court officials in Arizona.
"We desperately need more judges," said Walter Nash, an attorney in Tucson. "We have a crippling caseload."
The vacancies -- six of the U.S. District Court's 13 Arizona seats are currently empty -- put more stress on the other judges in the district at a time when "our caseload has been greater than any place else in the country," Nash said.
Federal court management statistics said Arizona had more than 5,000 cases pending in September, when it also had the third-longest vacancy rate in the country. As of September, the number of vacant judgeship months in Arizona stood at 49.8 months, trailing only Pennsylvania at 70.8 and New York at 51.7 months.
Brian Karth, executive for the Arizona district court clerk's office, said it is "extremely unusual and detrimental for a court to have six vacancies at any time."
He said because of the shortfall, Arizona has had more than 50 outside judges help with the district's caseload in the past year.
"Without them we wouldn't have survived," Karth said. "But we are still relying on them."
Among those cleared Tuesday was Rosemary Marquez, who was first nominated in June 2011 but has yet to get a hearing. Obama renominated her when he was re-elected last year.
"I'm very gratified they passed her through," Nash said of Marquez, who was nominated before Flake was even in the Senate. Nash could not say why it took so long to forward Marquez for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, but that "unfortunately, politics have crept into the judicial selection process."
Ed Maldonado, the president of Los Abogados Hispanic Bar Association, said he is happy Marquez is moving forward after waiting more than two years.
"We support all nominees, especially Marquez because it's been so long," Maldonado said.
In a letter to Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the American Bar Association said Arizona was among the worst states when it came to judicial vacancies. Such vacancies make it hard for the courts to keep up with the workload, it said, denying criminal defendants their right to a speedy trial and forcing civil litigants and businesses to wait much longer for a hearing.
"The combination of too few judges and insufficient funding is diminishing the ability of our federal courts to serve the people and deliver timely justice," the ABA letter said.
Senate Judiciary Committee staffers said Tuesday that hearing dates for the Arizona nominees have not yet been released.