The chief judge of Arizona's federal courts has declared a judicial emergency, citing an all-time high of felony cases that has pushed the four judges in Tucson past their limits.

Chief judge John M. Roll wants 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 says in Nov. 24, letter to U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski.

If permission for the delay is granted by the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit, the emergency declaration would give judges 180 days to bring felony defendants to trial, up from the current 70 days.

Judicial resources have not kept pace with the increases in investigative and prosecutorial resources overloading judges, Roll wrote. The number of prosecutors assigned to the criminal division in the Tucson Office of the U.S. Attorney's Office has nearly doubled in the past two years from 33 in 2008 to 61 today, the letter says. The buildup of Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector to 3,300 today, up from 2,100 in 2004.

"Without the possibility of relief from a declaration of judicial emergency, Tucson division is simply unable to absorb the enormous increase in felony cases being scheduled for trial while remaining compliant with the time limits set by the Speedy Trial Act," Roll wrote.

"We've reached a choke point," Roll said.

The situation is acute in Southern Arizona, where there are just five judges assigned. In actuality, there are just four, with a vacancy waiting to be filled.

Roll said the seven judges left in Phoenix - one just was named to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - already are busy and cannot help with the workload. And he said the space in the courthouse is so tight that even when they can get visiting judges, only one can be accommodated at any one time.

Two years ago there were 3,023 felony cases filed in federal court in Arizona. That increased to 4,311 the next year and 5,219 just last year. In just Tucson, felony filings went from 1,564 two years ago to 3,289 last year.

"It is a band-aid," Roll said of his request. "We need judges.'"

But that power resides only with Congress. And Roll said that despite the rapid increase in cases being filed in Arizona - and all along the Southwest border - the political reality may make getting that additional help impossible.

He called Arizona's congressional delegation "very supportive" of getting additional judges.

"The problem is there are only five Southwest border (federal judicial) districts," he said, all falling within just four states. That is out of 94 federal districts nationwide.

"So you have 46 states that may think that the Southwest border is a drain on all the available resources," Roll said. "They're not as receptive to the idea that the judicial resources should go to the Southwest border."

The number of judges aren't the only problem - there's not enough space in the Evo A. DeConcini Courthouse in Tucson, either, Roll wrote. The courthouse has seven district courtrooms, including a special proceedings room that has been used since January 2008 for the Border Patrol's Operation Streamline initiative. About 16,000 misdemeanor and petty cases are filed annually in this initiative, Roll wrote.

Space limitations at the Tucson courthouse "pose a significant impediment to the utilization of more than one visiting district judge at a time," Roll wrote. "And due to smaller magistrate judge courtrooms in Tucson, there is no space available for visiting judges to hear trials."

Roll said the increase in felony court filings is a natural outgrowth of the fact there are now more than 3,000 Border Patrol officers in the Tucson Sector.

Roll's request for the trial delay originally went to the 9th Circuit in November. But it 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.

A more permanent solution of more judges, by itself, is only part of the answer, he admitted.

He said while the federal courthouse in Tucson is only a decade old, "we are absolutely beyond full occupancy." Roll said that if Congress does eventually approve additional judgeships it should also approve the resources necessary, including additional space.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or