Matt Kenna (Guest Column- Durango Herald) In April, U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn announced that he will be taking senior status, effective April 2016. This announcement opens up a “future vacancy” in the federal District Court for District of Colorado and gives the president and the Senate a year to nominate and confirm a new federal judge.
The first step in this process is completed in Colorado by our U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Denver, and Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. The home-state senators are responsible for screening potential nominees and sending a short list of names to the White House for final vetting and nomination.
Each of the last two vacancies were filled using a joint-senators bipartisan screening committee, and the president nominated someone within six months of the vacancy announcement. This year, Gardner and Bennet are each creating separate committees that will not work together and do not seem to be planning a joint list to the president. Already four months into the announcement and the screening appears to barely moving.
Delays in this process matter. A fully-staffed federal court is vital because it keeps our judicial system open and accessible for Colorado residents and businesses that need timely resolution of disputes. Federal courts also help make sure that our criminal justice system is fully functioning and protect our individual rights and our public land, air and water quality.
Our Colorado federal court has only seven full-time “Article III” judges for the entire state and they are all based in Denver. (Article III is the part of the Constitution that provides for the judicial system.) Durango has a courthouse with a part-time magistrate and only gets periodic visits from a full judge. Those few judges are overworked and understaffed because we have not increased the number of judges since 1984, despite immense population growth since then.
This caseload backlog problem will only get worse if one of those seven seats on the trial court is left vacant in April. The entire Colorado congressional delegation has introduced legislation to add two new seats to our federal court for a total of nine for the state. Both Gardner and Bennet are co-sponsoring the Senate companion bill. This is commendable, but they should also work together to prioritize filling the vacancy to be created by Blackburn before he leaves the bench. Colorado businesses need this for economic growth, and individuals need this to protect their rights.