US public defenders oppose judge's request to delay trials

Extensions would cause other woes, Tucson office says
2011-01-06T00:00:00Z 2011-01-06T11:24:03Z US public defenders oppose judge's request to delay trialsBrady McCombs Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 06, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The federal Public Defender's Office in Tucson disagrees with the chief judge of Arizona's federal courts that delaying trials for felons is the best way to provide relief for overburdened judges.

Extending the allotted time for judges to bring felons to trial would cause major case backlogs, which could prevent defense attorneys from being able to take new cases and overcrowd detention centers with inmates awaiting trial, said Heather Williams of the federal Public Defender's Office in Tucson.

"Speedy-trial extensions are not the way to fix the problem and in fact may exacerbate it," said Williams, referring to time limits established in the Speedy Trial Act.

In a letter dated Nov. 24 and made public on Tuesday, chief Judge John M. Roll cited an all-time high of felony cases that has pushed the four federal judges in Tucson past their limits in asking for permission to delay bringing felons to trial.

"The addition of what sometimes seems to be an inexhaustible number of law-enforcement agents and federal prosecutors in Tucson division has now produced a tsunami of federal felony cases far beyond the management capacity of the four active district judges in Tucson division," Roll wrote.

Roll's request for the trial delay originally went to the 9th Circuit in November but was denied after two judges said they wanted more input from prosecutors and defense lawyers. The issue is set to come up again next month, Roll said.

Williams' office has been asked by the 9th Circuit to submit an opinion on the proposal.

The federal Public Defender's Office agrees that judges in Tucson are overworked, but it said the remedy should come from a review by executive branch officials of which cases are being filed and the appointment of more judges by Congress.

If granted, the delays could result in overcrowding at Arizona detention facilities, forcing felony defendants waiting for trial to be housed in border states, Williams said. Federal public defenders already spend three hours round-trip visiting clients being held in Eloy and Florence, and if the facilities there fill up, traveling to bordering states would eat up even more of their time.

"The trickle-down effect is going to cause a huge backlog of cases and create more problems," Williams said.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com

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