Share this article

print logo

Delays in filling two federal court seats shortchange the legal process in WNY

Buffalo is now without a single active federal district judge. That will worsen what is already one of the nation’s worst backlogs of civil cases. It is up to the president and Senate to act swiftly to fill the two federal judicial vacancies.

As recently reported, the retirement of Judge William M. Skretny leaves Buffalo without a full-time federal judge for the first time in 55 years.

It is only by the grace of Skretny and Richard J. Arcara, also technically retired, that work continues to get done. Both retirees have taken on “senior status,” which should mean they are available to help out when necessary. Unfortunately for them, necessity means they are still handling heavy caseloads.

They shouldn’t have to do it, and work is underway to fill the seats. But political games often get in the way of appointments during the last couple of years of a lame-duck president’s tenure. The political roadblocks that delayed the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as attorney general are at play here, on a smaller scale.

This is not just an inconvenience. Not when it comes to a federal legal system in which it takes, on average, more than five years for civil cases to come to trial in Buffalo. The delays are unconscionable, and more so because the solution is obvious.

One legal observer said this region could use another three district judges, but at the very least the two open seats should be filled.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has recommended judicial candidates to the president. He, in turn, has recommended one of those candidates, Lawrence J. Vilardo, to replace Arcara. Vilardo, a Canisius College and Harvard Law School graduate, should be a shoo-in for confirmation, as soon as the Senate gets around to acting.

There is much less confidence in Schumer’s recommendation to replace Skretny. He submitted the name of former federal prosecutor Denise O’Donnell in June, but Obama still has not nominated her.

Speculation centers on O’Donnell’s age – she’s 67, which is older than most judicial nominees – and whether her politics is interfering with the decision by the White House. The political fund left over from her campaign for state attorney general in 2006 has accumulated a balance of $300,000. Neither of these points should disqualify O’Donnell. She has already been screened by the Senate on two occasions, the latest for her current job as director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice. Prior to joining the Obama administration, O’Donnell was New York State’s deputy secretary for public safety and she also served at one time as commissioner of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Both O’Donnell and Vilardo are outstanding candidates and deserving of the positions. They need to win the necessary approvals and take their seats to begin dealing with the overwhelming amount of work waiting for them.

The courts here received more new filings last year than all but nine of the 94 court systems across the country. It’s no wonder that the backlog of civil and criminal cases ranks among the worst in the nation. Were it not for the fact that the judges in Buffalo and Rochester are so productive, read “overworked,” the situation would be a lot worse. It appears that all that’s keeping the system from becoming a complete shambles is the determination of two retired judges to continue working.

That the court system ranked seventh out of 94 in closing cases last year and a recent ranking of U.S. District Courts listed the local court as the fourth-most-productive system in the country speaks to the dedication of those currently on the bench. But again, these judges should not have to bear such a heavy burden.

Both Skretny and Arcara could have retired on a full salary, but have chosen to reduce their workloads only slightly. For that, the entire region should be grateful. But that does not excuse the Senate from its responsibility to consider the Vilardo nomination and the president from responsibility for nominating a candidate for the other seat.