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Editorial: Federal court vacancy must be filled promptly

Imagine a place where the wheels of justice grind so slowly that cases take years before being heard, and during that downtime witnesses may forget important details, relocate or die.

Such is the case in Western New York’s greatly overburdened and understaffed federal court system. It is strained to the point of tearing.

The atrocious delays in the U.S. District Court in Western New York mean that neither plaintiffs nor defendants are getting the justice they deserve. It is a travesty that requires immediate attention.

Part of that travesty is that there has been a vacancy on the bench for years. The quickest remedy for that would be to confirm Kathleen M. Sweet for the job. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., put forth her name more than two years ago, and then-President Barack Obama recommended her for Senate confirmation. The Judiciary Committee approved her nomination more than a year ago, but her nomination remains stalled in the Senate. And, with a Republican president in office, there is talk of GOP-friendly nominees in her place. However, Sweet is highly qualified and would bring welcome gender diversity to the bench.

There are other possible fixes for the court delays.

The long-term solution is to add another judge to the allotted four active judgeships in what is the nation’s seventh-busiest district. That the court has been able to limp along at all is thanks to U.S. District Judges Richard J. Arcara and William M. Skretny. They have been on senior status but continue to oversee full caseloads. Their dedication is much appreciated and desperately needed.

The problem was detailed in News staff reporter Phil Fairbanks’ recent article, “Federal court backlog denies justice to victims.” The story delved into a long-standing problem with the court system here in which people wait years to resolve civil cases.

Judges here handle an enormous number of cases, but still the backlog has exceeded 3,600 cases each of the past five years. Last year the judges disposed of 2,895 cases, but 2,876 new cases were filed. At that rate, the backlog will never be cleared.

Helping keep the system afloat is Chief U.S. District Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr., based in Rochester but often hearing cases in Buffalo. His own workload has doubled in recent years, and he has reached out for help. He recently adopted a three-year judge-sharing agreement with the much less burdened federal court system in Vermont. Those judges will be assigned civil cases from Buffalo.

The chief judge has another initiative, “Settlement Week,” in an effort to clear 100 of the oldest civil cases by offering parties free mediation.

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys have employed or suggested creative solutions in an effort to ease the strain on the criminal side of federal court, although criminal cases are a small part of the federal caseload.

Hundreds of civil cases have been languishing more than three years, an excessive wait for justice.

There is a vacancy on the bench. It must be filled as soon as possible, then attention must turn to adding another judgeship.

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