Courting Failure

I found two pieces of information about the federal court system interesting and worth pondering. Consider the first item from the New York Times about the number of vacancies in our courts:

The number of vacancies on the nation’s federal courts has reached an astonishingly high level, creating a serious shortage of judges and undermining the ability of the nation’s court system to bestow justice.

Of 856 federal district and circuit court seats, 85 are unfilled — a 10 percent vacancy rate and nearly double the rate at this point in the presidency of George W. Bush. More than a third of the vacancies have been declared “judicial emergencies” based on court workloads and the length of time the seats have been empty. By far the most important cause of this unfortunate state of affairs is the determination of Senate Republicans, for reasons of politics, ideology and spite, to confirm as few of President Obama’s judicial choices as possible.

This, in itself, is an embarrassment, though it seems unlikely this Congress could do anything to make itself look worse. But the number of important court cases backing up due to Congress’ reluctance to either nominate or  confirm proposed justices raises serious questions about the ability of these people to govern this nation — if we had any doubts.

On the other hand, we read a good piece of news from Phoenix, Arizona regarding a decision by federal district court judge Murray Snow regarding the country’s self-proclaimed “toughest” sheriff, Joe Arpaio, and his policy of racial profiling in defiance of federal mandates and constitutional principles guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens in this country. A case was brought against Sheriff Arpaio by, among others, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican tourist who was in the United States legally when deputies took him from a car in which he was riding with a white driver and kept him detained for nine hours while they determined whether or not he was indeed in the country legally. The country’s “toughest” sheriff has apparently a defiant attitude toward federal laws and a declared policy that reflects his own particular brand of racism — and, sad to say, keeps him secure in his office.

Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio has required prison inmates to wear pink underwear and saved taxpayers money by removing salt and pepper from prisons. He has, at times, forbidden convicted murderer Jodi Arias from speaking to the press.

The stern Maricopa County Sheriff has said the federal government will not stop him from running his office as he sees fit. But on Friday it did.

A judge [Murray Snow] ruled Friday that Arpaio’s routine handling of people of Latino descent is not tough enforcement of immigration laws but instead amounts to racial and ethnic profiling.

Some of those profiled sued Arpaio, and Judge Murray Snow found their complaints to be legitimate.

The federal court in Phoenix ordered “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — a moniker Arpaio sports on his website — to stop it immediately and has banned some of his operating procedures.

The sheriff’s office has a history of targeting vehicles with occupants with darker skin or Latin heritage, scrutinizing them more strictly and detaining them more often, Snow ruled.

As is the case here, it is not unusual for the courts to do things right in this country. Indeed, one might say the judicial system is one of the great strengths of this country and something we can be very proud of — and which keeps us this side of barbarism. But the unwillingness of Republicans in Congress to act on federal court appointments means that many cases will go untried and  innocent people will suffer unfairly. In the case of the country’s “toughest” sheriff, the case took eight months between the days of the final testimony and the decision itself.  One suspects that Judge Snow’s calendar is filled to the brim. Can we agree that this is yet another strike against the Congress?

The founders thought that incompetent politicians would simply be voted out of office. Alexander Hamilton says this repeatedly in the Federalist Papers. That doesn’t often happen, however, because they have enough wealthy backers (like the Koch brothers) to convince gullible voters at election time that they are doing a bang-up job on the voters’ behalf. So we are faced with Congressmen who hang on to their offices for dear life, by ignoring their civic duties and their constituents but pleasing those who hold the purse strings, knowing that it beats real work and pays very well. In spite of the fact that it might lead to inefficiency (though that ship has already sailed), there surely ought to be term limits on congressional offices. It would force the politicians to be a bit more responsive to their constituents and less concerned about reelection. Politics would be less a career choice and more a temporary respite from the business of making an honest living. That’s one the founders missed, for all their prescience and political savvy.

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3 thoughts on “Courting Failure

  1. Hugh, that is a good point — the integrity of the court system is right now the saving grace of the three-branch system of government. But the courts are, like climate change, about past the tipping point because of underfunding. That is hurting not only judges but all those involved in processing case loads. There is a dire shortage of defense attorneys, there has been a merging of administrative offices (the people who keep the court records and calendars flowing), all of which leads to a backlog of cases and the potential for error.

    Good to see Arpaio get knocked down a bit. He is Bull Connor, George Wallace, and every sadistic movie warden/local cop you can think of rolled into one. I just read a headline this morning somewhere else: “Arpaio is tough on prisoners, but is he tough on crime?” In other words, a story that questioned whether his methods actually have any productive or meaningful results outside his barbed-wire and shabby tents. Probably not. So what is the point other than his own sadistic power trip?

  2. Hamilton could not have envisioned that each party would have its own version of the news and the truth would be hard to find. Congress has basically come down to the following – they are so adversarial to be able to help and where they possibly could by approving judges, cannot act. In other words rather than being an enabler, Congress is now the worst of blockers. Great post on an unfortunate subject. BTG

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