STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some federal judges are feeling swamped. About 10 percent of seats on the federal bench are now vacant and that is creating a backlog of cases in the courts. Dozens of judicial nominations that would fill those seats have not been confirmed by the Senate. This week President Obama re-nominated 42 judicial candidates, hoping they will be confirmed the second time around. NPR's Carrie Johnson has our report.

CARRIE JOHNSON: There are so many vacancies on the federal courts that judges themselves are starting to sound the alarm. Judge Alex Kozinski leads the 9th Circuit Appeals Court based in California. He and his colleagues wrote to the Senate a few months ago, describing their desperate situation.

Judge ALEX KOZINSKI (9th Circuit Court of Appeals): What we're seeing is that a number of our district courts are swamped with cases, and really in very bad need of judicial appointments.

JOHNSON: Criminal cases in those busy courthouses take priority. That means, Kozinski says, that civil disputes can take years to resolve. Cases that challenge the denial of Social Security benefits, deportation orders, and important environmental disputes. He's worried about what those delays mean to people who have real problems.

Judge KOZINSKI: What they used to say on "People's Court" - don't take the law into your own hands, take them to court. That's the American way. And once people realize that you go to court and nothing happens, I think they are going to be looking for other ways of resolving the disputes.

JOHNSON: Lawyers with ties to both Republican and Democratic presidents are highlighting the crisis in judge vacancies. In all, courts in 30 states are suffering under judicial emergencies - places where courthouses are especially busy but have gone a long time without a judge.

Chief Justice John Roberts recently called on the Senate to move urgently. And leaders at the American Bar Association are speaking out too.

Mr. STEPHEN ZACK (President, American Bar Association): There is no priority higher for the ABA, to make sure that we have a fully staffed and fully operating federal bench.

JOHNSON: That's Stephen Zack. He's president of the ABA. And he's been getting an earful from judges who feel overwhelmed and from nominees who have been going nowhere in the Senate.

Mr. ZACK: Quite a few nominees came out of committee with no recorded opposition. None. That means that neither side said there was any reason for them not to be confirmed. So this is not a philosophical Republican/Democrat issue. These are issues that are much deeper as far as, you know, how government is being operated.

JOHNSON: President Obama recently re-nominated more than 40 judge candidates left languishing without a vote when the Senate departed in December. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just created a bipartisan group to examine how to break the logjam with executive nominations.

Russell Wheeler studies judicial vacancies at the Brookings Institution. And he says similar reforms are in order for judge nominees.

Mr. RUSSELL WHEELER (Brookings Institution): There is a realization that what we have here is just broken government. The government ought to be able to fill vacancies on the bench without having a food fight over almost every one of them.

JOHNSON: Wheeler says that courts along the Southwest border, crowded with immigration cases, are feeling the pinch - as are courts in Florida, Georgia, and Illinois. Tim Lewis used to be a judge on the 3rd Circuit Appeals Court in Philadelphia.

Judge TIM LEWIS: This has become a progressively degenerating process, and frankly a national disgrace, and I don't have confidence that this will abate any time soon.

JOHNSON: Experts say the long delays in confirmation are even scaring away qualified lawyers who might want to be judges but who don't want to endure waits of a year or longer.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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