Monday, July 24, 2006

"Immigration Crisis Tests Federal Courts on Southwest Border"

That's the title of this very interesting article from the June 2006 issue of "The Third Branch," the newsletter of the federal courts:

Federal courts along the southwest border are in crisis mode, contending with criminal caseloads that have skyrocketed since the late 1990s. Drug prosecutions, once the primary cause, have not waned but immigration cases have surpassed them and now drive the unprecedented numbers.

Some of the numbers in the article are astonishing. For example:

The average felony caseload (felony cases per authorized judgeship) nationwide is 87. * * * The Southern District of Texas ranks third, with an average of 326. But the district's Laredo division, home to [Judge George] Kazen and Judge Micaela Alvarez (S.D. Tex.), carries 2,800 felony cases - an average of 1,400 per judge.

Magistrate judges often handle initial proceedings in felony cases, in addition to handling from start to finish the many more numerous misdemeanor prosecutions. In the first four months of 2006, the two magistrate judges in Del Rio (in the Western District of Texas) presided over 15,586 cases.

"[M]any judges voice concerns" about the ability of courts to adequately protect defendants' constitutional right in such an atmosphere:

"The increase in our criminal caseload, especially in Las Cruces, has caused us to conduct hearings in a way that we've never had to conduct them before, and in a way that other jurisdictions don't have to," said Chief Judge Martha Vazquez of the District of New Mexico.

"We have . . . up to 90 defendants in a courtroom. Our magistrate judges try very hard to conduct these hearings in a way that is understandable to the defendants. But most of our defendants have a first or second grade education in their native countries. Some of them are not even able to read in their native languages. And so, we explain to them their constitutional rights in a legal system entirely foreign to them," she said.

"You line them up in a courtroom that is intimidating even to American citizens, and we ask them to waive their constitutional rights. It is a difficult atmosphere in which to waive important constitutional rights, and to ask them if they understand their rights. Defendants in other parts of the country do not have to give up critical rights in this atmosphere, only in the border districts because of this exploding caseload," Vazquez said.

Read the whole thing. (You can also watch an 11-minute video that accompanies the print article here.)


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