A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a measure that would split the nation’s largest appellate court - the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - and put California in a circuit apart from most of the other Western states.
Senators cited work overloads and long backups in court decisions, but Western Republicans also have been angered by 9th Circuit rulings in a number of environmental and other cases. The federal appeals court has successfully fought off attempts to break it up for two decades, and the current effort still faces several hurdles.
The circuit now covers cases heard from Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Under an amendment to a fiscal 1998 spending bill offered by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the 9th Circuit would be split in two: the 9th and a new 12th Circuit. California would be left alone in the 9th Circuit, along with Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Nevada and Hawaii could choose to be in either circuit, and the rest of the West would be in the 12th Circuit.
The amendment was approved on a voice vote. The bill covering spending for the departments of Commerce, Justice, State and the judiciary must now go to the full Senate for consideration.
A virtually identical bill was dropped by supporters on the Senate floor last year for lack of votes despite a move by one sponsor, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., to block confirmation votes on all 9th Circuit nominees.
Nine of the 28 judgeships in the circuit are now vacant. The Senate and the White House have blamed each other for delays in getting federal judges nominated and confirmed.
Burns said Tuesday he was “excited at the prospects of this legislation,” which sidestepped the policy-making Senate Judiciary Committee and was attached to an appropriations measure. But the breakup still faces strong opposition in both houses and the likelihood of a presidential veto if it passes.
California’s Republican governor, Pete Wilson, denounced one breakup proposal as “judicial gerrymandering” last week and said the proper way to change the court was by “the appointment of judges who share our judicial philosophy.”
The court, which has a slight majority of Republican appointees among its active judges, provided new ammunition to critics this year when 28 of its rulings were granted review by the Supreme Court and 27 were overturned. They included such major cases as doctor-assisted suicide and the Brady gun law.
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