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Updated Jan 29, 2014 - 1:59 pm

Nominees to vacant Arizona judgeships get long-awaited hearings

WASHINGTON -- Months of waiting -- and more than two years in one case -- were over in less than two hours this week when a Senate committee breezed through nomination hearings for six Arizona judicial nominees.

After a generally friendly hearing Tuesday before a sparsely attended Senate Judiciary Committee, the six nominees will still have to wait at least one more week for a committee vote, which would be followed by a full Senate vote.

It comes as the U.S. District Court in Arizona is under "great strain," because six of its 13 judgeships are vacant, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an opening statement to the committee.

He called it a "judicial emergency" that has led to a backed-up caseload in "one of the top 10 busiest courts in the country."

Which is why some in the legal community wondered what took so long to have a hearing in the first place.

"I'm just glad the Senate is getting around to doing something," said A. Bates Butler, a former U.S. attorney. "Congratulations, Senate, but you shouldn't have taken so long."

Butler said there is "no excuse" for the amount of time it took to give a hearing to the nominees, especially Rosemary Marquez, who waited more than two years for a hearing.

"(The wait) didn't seem to have anything to do with her qualifications as a judge," Butler said.

But Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said at the hearing that it was important to be deliberate.

"These are lifetime appointments and we want to be thorough with this process and I believe that we were," Flake said.

Flake, who has only been in the Senate for a year, said that for him going through the process of considering a nominee "was really a baptism by fire."

He and Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, were the only two committee members at the hearing. They asked the nominees general questions about how their experiences and ethnic backgrounds would benefit the federal bench.

One of the nominees, James Soto, told the lawmakers that he believed the panel of nominees would contribute to the notion that "Arizona judges are of high quality."

Steven Logan, another nominee, emphasized his ability to listen to both sides of an argument. He said he learned through experience with civil cases and how, for civil litigants, those cases are the "most important things that's going on in their lives."

Currently in Arizona, however, the shortage of judges has put greater emphasis on criminal cases, while Bates said "months would go by" before litigants in civil cases would get their day in court.

Patricia Refo, a partner in the Phoenix law firm Snell and Wilmer, said Arizona is in a terrible situation and that the seven current judges will continue to be overworked until the vacancies are filled.

Butler said if the committee leaves any seats vacant next week, Arizona will "end up bringing more judges from out-of-state," leading to continued extra costs and a "delay in justice."

But Michael Hawkins, a senior judge for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said he's confident that the nominees will only benefit the Arizona federal courts.

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