Arizona Daily Sun: Tribal communities lack 'needed' federal judicial resources, Arizona judge says

The federal district court in Arizona lacks the resources to keep up with an accumulating civil and criminal caseload, and some court officials fear the system has disproportionately affected tribal lands.

U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa on Wednesday called for Congress to consider expanding the federal courts in the state, citing continued population growth, unique geography and vast tribal presence.

“The district’s caseload shows little sign of subsiding, and it continues to strain our existing resources,” Humetewa told a House Judiciary subcommittee. “The status quo simply cannot meet the constitutional mandate to administer meaningful justice for all of its citizens.”

Humetewa was joined by U.S. District Judges Kimberly Mueller and Larry A. Burns, who all testified before the subcommittee on the need to add more permanent judgeships. Humetewa emphasized judicial struggles faced by Arizona, and particularly, tribal communities in northern Arizona.

Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, spoke in support of judicial relief, and was joined by lawmakers from both parties calling for Congress to support federal courts.

Stanton noted that the state's population has grown by 50% since the year 2000, but has only had one new judgeship authorized. In 2019, Arizona had a weighted caseload of 800 filings per district judge, which is the 5th highest in the country, according to the judiciary’s Federal Court Management Statistics.

“The district court has been working with too little for too long and at the expense of Arizonans who should have fair, unobstructed access to our country’s judicial system. Additional judgeships is a good place to start,” Stanton said.

Court access has been particularly concerning in northern Arizona, as a growing number of cases are hundreds of miles away in Phoenix or Tucson. At the same time, criminal filings in northern Arizona grew by 13% between 2016 and 2019, while civil case filings increased 21%, Humetewa said.

Humetewa and her colleagues hold court in Flagstaff once a month to ease the travel burden on the community, but many find the arrangement impractical. This is not a “long-term workable solution,” Stanton said of judicial access in northern Arizona.

“Because Arizona’s federal courtrooms are located in the major metropolitan areas, many residents in remote areas — including on tribal Lands — face logistical challenges seeking justice," Humetewa said in a written testimony. “That includes delayed investigations from a lack of federal law enforcement resources, delayed prosecution decisions, and hours-long trips to engage with the courts and judges.”

Currently, a full-time federal magistrate judge operates out of Flagstaff to handle both misdemeanor and preliminary felony cases, although cases that move outside of these parameters must be transferred to a district court judge in Phoenix. This can have unintended effects on the juror selection process.

“We’re essentially asking all of those individuals from northern Arizona to drive to Phoenix to serve on a federal trial,” Humetewa said.

The travel could mean misrepresentation in federal court cases. Humetewa explained that many cases consisting of both Native American victims and defendants proceed without any Native American representation in the jury.

Humetewa said she has witnessed a new trend of crime on tribal lands since she was appointed to the district court bench in 2019, including the distribution of controlled substances and firearms offenses. She said crimes that have historically affected metropolitan areas are “no longer unusual” in tribal communities.

“The focus on increasing access to the courts for rural tribal communities is the right one,” Stanton said. “We need a permanent federal district judge in Flagstaff to handle the caseload that originates from Indian Country in northern Arizona.”

Stanton said if not for the pandemic, he would have pushed for a congressional hearing in support of judicial resources last year.

Congress has not significantly expanded district courts since 1990, while the country’s population has grown by 80 million in that time frame. Further, the number of cases filed with the courts of appeals has risen 20% nationwide in that period, according to Duke Law Professor Marin Levy, who testified on Wednesday.

“We hope that with the addition of district court judges that more and more of my colleagues will be able to bring justice to those communities so that there can be full participation from the communities affected,” Humetewa said.