February 11, 1998
In his annual report, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist recently complained that 10 percent of the entire federal judiciary remained vacant. Betty Ann Bowser reports on how the vacancies are affecting the judicial system.
CLERK: Hear ye. Hear ye. Year ye. The United States District Court in and for the Southern District of Texas holding session--
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Television cameras are almost never allowed inside a federal courtroom. But Judge Filemon Vela agreed to let the NewsHour into his courtroom in Brownsville, Texas, to see something equally unusual--the mass sentencing of criminal defendants.
FILEMON VELA, Federal Judge: Do each and every one of you feel like you have had sufficient time to discuss your case with your attorney, and are you satisfied with his or her services?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the 18 years Vela has been on the federal bench he has never had to run his court this way, but in recent years the caseload has skyrocketed, so he's having to find creative ways to get things done, and he doesn't like it.
JUDGE FILEMON VELA: I will take 15 pleas of guilty at one time, and it will take me less than an hour. I will sentence ten or fifteen people in fifteen or twenty minutes. But you do these things because the occasion requires you to do it, and you really have no choice. You pray to God that you don't sacrifice what's very much a part of the system.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One reason Vela is trying more criminal cases in South Teas is because of Operation Rio Grande, an all-out effort by the Immigration Service to prosecute illegal aliens and drug traffickers who come across the border from Mexico. Hundreds of Border Patrol agents have been added so that today an unprecedented 850 officers are poised along the Rio Grande River that separates Texas from Mexico. Since August of last year, marijuana seizures are up by 26 percent. The number of federal prosecutors in Brownsville has almost been doubled. But Judge Vela is still the only sitting federal judge there to try the cases.
JUDGE FILEMON VELA: (during court session) I would ask the government, any further evidence from the government?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Congress created a second judgeship back in 1990, but the seat has never been filled by the United States Senate, and Judge Vela is concerned about how his caseload is affecting justice.
JUDGE FILEMON VELA: You wish you had more time, but it's like everything else, you commit yourself to what's before you. If you do not take care of what's before you now, then you'll come to the time when the cases are going to haunt you, and you're not going to be able to comply with a speedy trial. And that's a problem when you have a very heavy criminal docket; it controls you, you don't control it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Attorney Tom Susman of the American Bar Association says another reason Judge Vela and federal judges across the country are being controlled by their dockets is the increased number of new federal laws and regulations.
TOM SUSMAN, American Bar Association: In the last couple of decades, new causes of action, new guidelines for sentencing, new standards for copyrights and patent cases, new requirements on immigration exclusions and admissions--so all of these have an impact and of course a myriad of criminal offenses that have been federalized. All of these make for more complicated cases and more work for the federal bench.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And ever since the 1970's, the federal Speedy Trial Act has required that criminal cases be tried in 70 days from indictment, or be thrown out. So with the pressing work load criminal cases come first in Judge Vela's courtroom. Civil cases frequently have to wait. Attorney Arnold Aguilar tries civil cases in the Rio Grande Valley. Some of his cases have been put on hold for months, and even in criminal cases which get priority, Aguilar says defendants are being short changed.
ARNOLD AGUILAR, Lawyer: Well, what happens is either the prosecutor or the defendant, or the defense attorney has to start saying, okay, I've got to cut witnesses, who are my most important witnesses? Well, maybe I'll cut this witness and this witness. And as a result, you've got very speedy trials going on, but I don't know if that's what you'd call justice, and it's certainly not what you'd call due process, I don't think.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: South Texas is not the only place where there is a shortage of federal judges. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist recently complained in his annual report that 10 percent of the entire federal judiciary remained vacant. The Chief Justice said, "Vacancies cannot remain at such high levels indefinitely without eroding the quality of justice." And he placed part of the blame on President Clinton for not nominating qualified judges fast enough. But his strongest criticism was aimed at the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has not filled 82 vacant judgeships. Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is chairman of the committee.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH, Chairman, Judiciary Committee: This shows that we have approved 474 total Clinton administration people in this committee--239 federal judges as of today--and there should be some others.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In a recent appearance on the NewsHour Hatch defended his committee's record and blamed the President for the problem.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: When you stop and think about it we have 82 vacancies. Forty of them don't even have nominees. Now we're good on that Judiciary Committee but we've never been able to confirm somebody who hasn't yet been nominated. I think we can do a better job. I think the President, if he sends up qualified, non-controversial nominees, they go through very quickly. If they have problems and they're not qualified, then it's a problem.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: President Clinton, in one of his weekly radio addresses last year, insisted it is not a question of qualifications; it is one of partisan politics.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The Senate's failure to act on my nominations, or even to give many of my nominees a hearing, represents the worst of partisan politics. We can't let partisan politics shut down our courts and gut our judicial system.
ANNOUNCER: California--citizens vote to pass a civil rights initiative; a judge strikes down its passage.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some conservatives argue the real reason for delays is that the President's nominees are too liberal in their interpretation of the law, that too many of them are so-called "activist judges." In a fund-raising tape distributed by the Free Congress Foundation, conservative Paul Weyrich criticized liberal judges.
PAUL WEYRICH, Free Congress Foundation: Federal judges routinely overrule the will of the people as expressed in state referenda. Something must be done now to correct this imbalance.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tom Jipping is director of the Judicial Selection Monitoring Project for the Free Congress Foundation.
TOM JIPPING, Free Congress Foundation: The criterion that we use is judicial philosophy; that is, the kind of judge that a nominee will become. And I think President Clinton has opted for nominees who fit more of an activist mold; that is, they don't restrain themselves just to what the law is; they feel that they can go beyond that and maybe shape the law as well.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Clinton administration says it has selected moderate candidates for the bench. The ABA's Susman agrees.
TOM SUSMAN: The argument is the Senate has to have a more intense review of nominees to make sure that they aren't liberal activists. That's not consistent with at least academic assessment of records of Clinton nominees. The Clinton nominees have been assessed as being very high quality.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: He also says the entrance of advocacy groups and ideology into the confirmation process is relatively new.
TOM SUSMAN: It became more ideological only during the 80's, when President Reagan indicated that reversing the liberal leaning and activist leanings of federal district judges would be part of his goal as president. And that really introduced then a new factor into the mix, which continues to plague us to this day.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That new factor in the mix has caused serious problems for Clinton nominee Mike Schattman of Dallas. He has been waiting for two years to get a hearing before the Judiciary Committee. The former Texas district judge didn't run for re-election because the White House assured him he'd be confirmed. So while he waits, the has lots of time to do chores. Traditionally, nominees to the federal bench do not give interviews, but Schattman, weary from the delays, has decided to speak out.
MICHAEL SCHATTMAN: If I'm not supposed to be the judge, fine. But let's have it out. Let's go ahead and have a vote on it. And if I am supposed to be the judge, put me in office; if I'm not supposed to be the judge, okay, let's make that decision and get another Clinton appointee up here who can be the judge.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Originally, Texas's two Republican Senators both supported Schattman. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison wrote a constituent, "I will do everything I can to advance his nomination." Then, suddenly, last July, Hutchison and senior Senator Phil Gramm withdrew their support. In a press release Gramm called Schattman "a dedicated activist" who could not be expected to "abandon a life-long determination to act on his political convictions." Gramm also objected to Schattman's conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Schattman says the charge that having once been a conscientious objector would affect his work as a federal judge is ridiculous.
MICHAEL SCHATTMAN: You make decisions as a judge based on evidence, the facts in the case, and the applicable law. Now, if you ever found a situation where in conscience you could not make the decision required by law, then you would need to resign. I have never found myself in that situation as a judge and do not think I would.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When one or both Senators object to a federal judicial nominee from their home state, it becomes extremely difficult for that nominee to get a hearing before the Judiciary Committee. Both Texas Senators refused our request for interviews about the Schattman nomination. A spokesperson for Sen. Hatch would not comment if or when the Senator might schedule a hearing for Mike Schattman or any other federal judicial nominee. Nominee Schattman has returned to private practice. Judge Vela continues to run the Brownsville courthouse singlehandedly and has recently been asked by another overworked federal judge in Texas to take on one of his cases.