End in sight for Georgia’s federal judicial vacancy logjam

There are several longstanding vacancies on Atlanta’s two busy federal courts: the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases out of Georgia, Alabama and Florida and is allotted 12 judges; and the U.S. District Court, which has 11 judgeships and conducts criminal and civil trials. Here are the vacancies and the judges who once held those seats:

11th Circuit

Stanley Birch, who retired from the court on Aug. 29, 2010

J.L. Edmondson, who became a senior judge on July 15, 2012

District Court

Clarence Cooper, who became a senior judge on Feb. 9, 2009

Beverly Martin, who was elevated to the 11th Circuit on Jan. 20, 2010

Charles Pannell Jr., who became a senior judge on Jan. 31

Source: U.S. Courts

Atlanta’s long-running judicial vacancy nightmare might be coming to a close.

The White House and Georgia’s two Republican senators who have blocked several of President Barack Obama’s nominees to federal court vacancies have ramped up negotiations. A compromise is now in sight, say lawyers and government officials familiar with the talks but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agreement is not yet final.

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A compromise means important slots could be filled on local federal courts that decide nationally significant cases, such as water rights to Lake Lanier, the Affordable Care Act, gun control and immigration reform.

The busy 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court here have had unfilled vacancies for as long as four years, raising concerns about how long it takes cases to be considered and whether overworked judges are able to give cases the attention they deserve.

The logjam could be broken soon through an agreement to fill two vacancies on the 11th Circuit, which sits one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court, and other vacancies on the district court bench. In recent years, senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson have refused to allow confirmation hearings for some of Obama’s nominees. The White House has also failed to submit nominations for some of the vacancies.

Outlines of the deal include allowing Obama’s long-stalled 11th Circuit nominee, Atlanta lawyer Jill Pryor, to proceed toward confirmation. Pryor, 50, is a partner at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore and a past president of the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers.

In return, Obama will fill the second 11th Circuit vacancy with the pick of Chambliss and Isakson: Julie Carnes, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Carnes, 62, is the daughter of former Fulton County State Court Chief Judge Charles Carnes. A former prosecutor, she was nominated to the bench in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.

Both Pryor and Carnes declined to comment. The White House also declined to comment.

There are three vacancies on Atlanta’s district court, but if Carnes is elevated there will be four.

Negotiations continue on these openings, but a deal appears to be within reach, Anne Lewis, general counsel for the state Republican Party, said Wednesday.

“There is movement toward filling those slots,” said Lewis, a panelist at an event sponsored by the Georgia Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society and the Gate City Bar Association. “I have confidence the logjam for our state may finally be coming to an end.”

Joel Dubina, the 11th Circuit’s chief judge, said his court is eager to get some relief.

“Everyone here is working very hard,” he said. “We’re already the busiest circuit in the country. It’s extraordinarily difficult to do all we have to do when we’re down two active judges.”

Dubina, 65, is ready to become a senior judge. This would allow him to carry a reduced caseload; it would also open up another vacancy for Obama to fill. But Dubina has said he will not take that step until at least one vacancy is filled because he does not want to overburden his colleagues.

“I have put my decision off again and again,” Dubina said. “I really want to take senior status, but I’m just waiting to see what happens with these Georgia vacancies.”

Both of the 11th Circuit vacancies have been declared “judicial emergencies” by the U.S. Courts office because of the court’s caseload and the length of time the positions have been unfilled. The number of pending cases on the 11th Circuit increased 15 percent from October 2011 to October 2012, the biggest leap of any of the nation’s 12 circuit courts of appeals.

Two of district court’s three openings — one of which has been vacant for more than four years, another that’s been open for more than three years — have also been declared emergencies.

Georgia State University law professor Eric Segall said filling the district and appeals court slots is extremely important because the U.S. Supreme Court decides less than 1 percent of the nation’s federal cases.

“Because the justices decide such few cases, less than one hundred a year with written opinions, it is crucial that the lower federal courts at both the appellate and trial level be adequately staffed,” Segall said. “The stonewalling of lower court judges … carries great costs.”

University of Georgia political science professor Richard Vining, who specializes in judicial decision-making and the nomination process, said longstanding vacancies can lead to extensive delays in case processing and burdensome workloads for judges.

“These delays affect Americans directly because the federal courts are unable to decide civil or criminal cases in a speedy fashion, resulting in additional months or years of legal wrangling for litigants and criminal defendants,” he said.

The stalemate stems from the traditional right of senators to sign off on judicial nominees in their home states. Getting a “blue slip” of approval from Isakson and Chambliss is the first step toward getting a confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the panel signs off, the nomination then goes to the full Senate for a final vote.

Senate Democrats have complained about the slow pace of judicial confirmations, though they have picked up lately. The complaints have stemmed mostly from stalling in the committee and on the floor, but Georgia’s blue slip dispute has gone on for years.

In 2011, Obama nominated U.S. Magistrate Linda Walker and federal public defender Natasha Perdew Silas for two district court openings. Isakson and Chambliss approved of Walker but not Silas. Since the White House considered them to be a package, neither was confirmed.

The senators took the rare step of sending a public letter to the White House in 2012 explaining who they thought should fill the openings. They recommended Walker and Pryor for two district openings, and Atlanta lawyer Mark Cohen — a former chief of staff to Gov. Zell Miller — for an appeals court slot.

Obama then nominated only Pryor for the appeals court, which did not appease the senators. One possible source of friction with Pryor serving on the appeals court — where ideology has greater bearing on judicial outcomes — was the fact that in 2008 she donated $4,300 to Democrat Jim Martin in his unsuccessful campaign to unseat Chambliss.

“For one reason or another, the White House has been slow in acting and for whatever reason we’ve been a little slow in acting,” Chambliss said last week. “We’re still working on it and we hope to reach an agreement.”