Citing the economic downturn as one of two “immediate obstacles” to improving the performance of the federal judiciary, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts also focuses part of his annual year-end report on the other problem he sees hampering the judicial branch: political intransigence in confirming federal judges.

Roberts says the nomination and confirmation of federal judges has become a persistent problem. “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 said in his report released Friday.

Statistics from the Federal Judicial Center show that more than 10% of the 876 federal judgeships are vacant. “This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts. Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads,” Roberts added.

Just before leaving Washington last week, the Senate approved a slew of nominees that had built up over the past two years. Roberts said he was heartened by the congressional action but says “an urgent need [remains] for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.”

In July, American Bar Association President Carolyn Lamm said the problem affects the efficiency and fairness of the judicial system. “We have speedy trial rules that require [judges] to put criminal cases first. As a result, all of the civil proceedings are put off and there is a real gap in terms of a significant delay as a result of the vacancies. It is edging toward a crisis not to have a full bench.”

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