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City Council Demands Senate Action on Federal Judicial Vacancies

Pittsburgh City Council is calling on the U.S. Senate to fill a multitude of vacancies in the federal court system, particularly eight open seats on Pennsylvania's bench.

In a Will of Council document, Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak called on Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) to put pressure on party leadership for a vote on the dozens of judicial nominees awaiting Senate approval. Many of the open positions have been vacant since 2009.

According to Rudiak, the judicial vacancies cause long delays in civil cases, leading many plaintiffs into "inadequate" settlements.

Women's Law Project attorney Tara Pfeifer agreed that judicial vacancies cause "devastating" delays.

"The drain on resources for the litigants, their attorneys, the judges who are involved; the uncertainty with the disposition of their cases; just the jaded view of our court system — I've certainly heard many comments about that from litigants — it's terrible," said Pfeifer. "The emergency state, as it exists right now, really needs attention."

Jodi Hirsh of JustAction, LLC said the Senate's "obstruction" of President Barack Obama's judicial nominees is disproportionately affecting women and minorities.

"A remarkable 64% of federal judges nominated by Obama are women and people of color, a rate that is double that of [former President] George W. Bush," said Hirsh. She said 12 of the 19 people awaiting a vote from the Senate Judiciary Committee are women or minorities.

In addition, Rudiak said elderly judges are postponing retirement to keep the federal court system afloat. She said Judge Malcolm Muir of the U.S District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania fell ill in chambers last summer, and died shortly afterward at age 96.

"This judge was working every day, overwhelmed, until he was 96 years old," said Rudiak. "In that same district, there's an 88-year-old judge, a Kennedy nominee on the bench since 1962, who is still working."

A representative of Senator Casey's office wrote in response to the Will of Council document:

"Senator Casey agrees that the Senate needs to move as quickly as possible to confirm nominees and get judges on the bench as fast as possible, and he will continue to work in a bipartisan way to recommend strong judicial candidates," wrote staffer Ian Jannetta. "Because of the bipartisan cooperation between Senators Casey and Toomey, there are no vacancies in federal court for the western district of Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh."