WASHINGTON, D.C. (Legal Newsline) - American Bar Association President Carolyn Lamm says the increasing number of vacancies in the nation's lower federal courts is affecting the efficiency and fairness of the justice system.

Lamm said Monday there is a substantial number of vacancies in the lower courts that "urgently" need filling. Currently, there are about 100, she said.

"Our courts are already terribly strained at the federal level because of the caseload and the workload, and when you're a hundred justices down... that's a big gap," Lamm said.

"We have speedy trial rules that require them to put criminal cases first. As a result, all of the civil proceedings are put off and there is a real gap in terms of a significant delay as a result of the vacancies. It is edging toward a crisis not to have a full bench."

Even if all the vacancies were filled, a significant number of new judgeships would still be necessary to handle caseload growth, Lamm said.

The Judicial Conference of the United States is recommending 67 new permanent and temporary judgeships.

Beyond the 100 vacancies, more than 20 additional judges have announced they will retire in the next several months. Since the start of the 111th Congress, President Obama has made 78 nominations to fill the empty seats, and the Senate has confirmed 36 of the nominees.

Lamm noted most nominees have moved through the Senate with little dissent and delay.

"None of them have, in fact, engendered huge debate on the floor of the Senate... No one has seen a pattern of inappropriate people being nominated; it is simply very slow and it really needs a full bipartisan effort to move these nominations. And quite frankly, it is becoming urgent," Lamm said.

The ABA's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary evaluates the professional qualifications of candidates for all Article III federal court vacancies.

While the committee started its evaluation of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan after Obama nominated her, all potential lower federal court nominees are evaluated before the president nominates them. Lower federal court evaluations are conducted throughout the year as names of potential nominees are sent from the White House or the Department of Justice.

For every federal court judgeship, the standing committee's objective is to provide an impartial peer-review of each nominee's integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament.

The evaluation process includes conducting confidential interviews -- which could number from 40 to more than 100 -- with lawyers and judges who know the work of, or who have worked with, the candidate or nominee.

The committee's evaluator, who is typically from the same federal judicial circuit as the prospective nominee, also will interview the individual and examine his or her writings, including briefs, publications, speeches, court transcripts, articles and decisions, if applicable.

There are three possible ratings that a prospective nominee may receive. They are "well qualified," "qualified" and "not qualified."

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