(CN) - John Roll, the chief federal judge in Arizona, had made the decision to visit a Safeway in Casas Adobes after attending Sunday morning Mass. He wanted to speak with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords about a brewing crisis in the state's federal courts.
Giffords was holding a "Congress on Your Corner" event in the supermarket parking lot. At 10 a.m. as Giffords spoke to a pair of constituents, Roll approached the Democratic politician to tell her what was on his mind.
He had only just said hello to Giffords when a man in the crowd approached with a 9mm Glock pistol and began firing.
Judge Roll was among the six people Jared Lee Loughner shot and killed in the Tucson shooting on Jan. 8, 2011. The very problem that occupied Roll as he made his way to meet Giffords had just worsened.
In the days before he was shot, Roll had been coming to terms with a Senate confirmation that would send Judge Mary Murguia to the 9th Circuit. Months earlier, U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata had taken senior status, a kind of semi-retirement.
Now, there were only three active judges left on a court with 12 permanent seats, leaving New Chief judge Roslyn Silver to divvy up Roll's 900 criminal and civil cases.
The ability of the court to deliver justice in a timely manner to the people of Arizona was at stake. Silver announced a judicial emergency. Statutory time limits for trying defendants were temporarily suspended.
Three years down the line, Arizona is still one of several federal districts dealing with a ballooning caseload because of judicial vacancies.
The U.S. judiciary defines a judicial emergency as vacancy that leaves weighted filings in excess of 600 cases for each judge; any vacancy that is older than 18 months and has left judges with weighted filings of 430 to 600 cases; or any court with only one active judge.
Since Roll's death, four more judges for the District of Arizona - David Bury, Frederick Martone, James Teilborg and Roslyn Silver - took senior status, leaving the court with 699 adjusted filings per judgeship.
In late January, the U.S. Judiciary reported that the Senate had taken the "highly unusual" step of holding a single-shot confirmation hearing for six Arizona nominees.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Logan, Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney John Tuchi, former U.S. Attorney Diane Humetewa, lawyer Rosemary Marquez, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Douglas Rayes and Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge James Soto took one step closer to filling the seats this week, after the Judiciary committee approved the nominations by voice vote.
At the committee's executive business meeting on Thursday, ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley voiced support for the unprecedented package deal conservative Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake had arranged with the White House.
"That's not to say that I'm not troubled by certain aspects of the nominees' record," Grassley told the committee.
"Just because a nominee is voice-voted out of committee, it does not necessarily mean a nominee enjoys unanimous support when it gets before all 100 senators," Grassley said. "And every member deserves a right for a recorded vote."
The senator did not mention the judicial emergency in the state. He did not mention that Judge Zapata's seat had been vacant for 1,304 days; Judge Murguia's for 1,151 days. He never pointed out that the court had been grappling with how to adequately deliver justice to its people for more than three years.
Despite keeping a nomination pace comparable to that of President Bill Clinton in his fifth year, and surpassing President George W. Bush's rate, President Barack Obama was saddled at the end of 2013 with more judicial vacancies than either of his two predecessors during the same period, the Brookings Institution found.
"Bush and Clinton, by contrast, saw the number of vacancies decline overall by the end of their fifth years in office," it reported.
Political obstructionism has taken its toll
on courts that have already faced a double-barrel assault from sequestration and last year's government shutdown.
When Democratic senators last year pushed through the "nuclear" option, changing Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster and allow confirmations by a simple majority, it seemed Washington had taken one step closer to filling empty seats.
But Republicans politicians in the Senate have found another weapon in their arsenal: the blue-slip procedure, or what some have called the "silent filibuster."
Though senators let federal judicial nominees from their states move forward by indicating their approval on a blue slip of paper, a senator can obliterate the nomination altogether by never submitting his blue slip.
If the six Arizona nominees are confirmed, the tally of judicial emergencies will still stand at 29. In other words, Arizona is only one part of an ever-present problem - the same issue Judge Roll was intent on tackling more than three years ago.