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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

President Obama moves to fill the 9th Circuit Court

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President Obama has nominated a pair of Californians to fill vacant seats on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

John B. Owens is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Munger, Tolles & Olson. Owens spent more than a decade as a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's office in California after graduating first in his class at Stanford Law School. He also clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Munger, Tolles could be losing another partner, but from its San Francisco office. The president also nominated Michelle T. Friedland to the 9th Circuit. She graduated second in her class at Stanford and clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

President Obama said "their impressive legal careers are testaments to the kind of thoughtful and diligent judges they will be."

One of these seats has been vacant for nearly a decade. Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond, says it's the longest appellate court vacancy in the country. He says both nominees are "well qualified and uncontroversial, so they should be smoothly confirmed." That won't happen until next year, he says, given the calendar and the number of nominees ahead of them.

Tobias says there may be one complication: because the 9th Circuit covers more than California, the vacant seat was previously held by a nominee from was from California, but moved to Idaho during his judgeship. It's unclear whether that state's two Senators will try to block the nomination of a judge from California. The 9th Circuit Court is authorized to have 29 judges.

The Ninth Circuit nominees would fill two of the 35 vacancies nationwide that the U.S. Courts have officially declared to be judicial emergencies. Glenn Sugameli, senior attorney of Defenders of Wildlife and a federal court observer says "filling both seats is necessary, but is not enough to ensure that justice delayed does not continue to be justice denied."

A pair of Senate Democrats want to free the logjam of cases in the lower federal court system. A bill was introduced this week by Chris Coons of Delaware and Patrick Leahy of Vermont to create 91 new federal judgeships, including 10 for Southern California. The bill is based on recommendations of a nonpartisan study group headed by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts. Caseload in federal courts has jumped 38% since 1990, the last time Congress passed comprehensive legislation on federal judicial issues. In that period, the number of federal judges only grew by 4%.

It's uncertain whether the bill has enough support to pass the Senate, let alone the Republican-led House. Leahy, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, will schedule a hearing on the issue this fall. He says "Federal judges are working harder than ever, but in order to maintain the integrity of the Federal courts and the expediency that justice demands, judges must have a manageable workload.”

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